Spirit bound Book 5
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Spirit bound Book 5

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Salvation has its price. ...

Salvation has its price.
The words stunned Adrian for a moment, but he kept going. "You're lying. What you're describing is impossible. There's no way to save a Strigoi. When they're gone, they're gone. They're dead. Undead. Forever."

Robert's next words weren't directed at Adrian. They were spoken to me. "That which is dead doesn't always stay dead...."

After a long and heartbreaking journey to Dimitri’s birthplace in Siberia, Rose Hathaway has finally returned to St. Vladimir’s—and to her best friend, Lissa Dragomir. It's graduation, and the girls can’t wait for their real lives outside of the Academy’s cold iron gates to finally begin. But even with the intrigue and excitement of court life looming, Rose’s heart still aches for Dimitri. He's out there, somewhere.

She failed to kill him when she had the chance, and now her worst fears are about to come true. Dimitri has tasted her blood, and she knows in her heart that he is hunting her. And if Rose won't join him, he won't rest until he's silenced her...forever.

But Rose can't forget what she learned on her journey—whispers of a magic too impossible and terrifying to comprehend. A magic inextricably tied to Lissa that could hold the answer to all of Rose's prayers, but not without devastating consequences. Now Rose will have to decide what—and who—matters most to her. In the end, is true love really worth the price?

Fall in love with Rose and Dimitri all over again in Spirit Bound, the eagerly awaited fifth novel in Richelle Mead's enthralling Vampire Academy series.

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Spirit bound Book 5 Spirit bound Book 5 Document Transcript

  • Chapter OneTHERES A BIG DIFFERENCE BETWEEN death threats and love letters--even if the personwriting the death threats still claims to actually love you. Of course, considering I once tried tokill someone I loved, maybe I had no right to judge.Todays letter had been perfectly timed, not that I should have expected any less. Id read it fourtimes so far, and even though I was running late, I couldnt help but read it a fifth time.My dearest Rose,One of the few downsides to being awakened is that we no longer require sleep; therefore wealso no longer dream. Its a shame, because if I could dream, I know Id dream about you. Iddream about the way you smell and how your dark hair feels like silk between my fingers. Iddream about the smoothness of your skin and the fierceness of your lips when we kiss.Without dreams, I have to be content with my own imagination--which is almost as good. I canpicture all of those things perfectly, as well as how itll be when I take your life from this world.Its something I regret having to do, but youve made my choice inevitable. Your refusal to joinme in eternal life and love leaves no other course of action, and I cant allow someone asdangerous as you to live. Besides, even if I forced your awakening, you now have so manyenemies among the Strigoi that one of them would kill you. If you must die, itll be by my hand.No one elses.Nonetheless, I wish you well today as you take your trials--not that you need any luck. If theyreactually making you take them, its a waste of everyones time. Youre the best in that group, andby this evening youll wear your promise mark. Of course, that means youll be all that muchmore of a challenge when we meet again--which Ill definitely enjoy.And we will be meeting again. With graduation, youll be turned out of the Academy, and onceyoure outside the wards, Ill find you. There is no place in this world you can hide from me. Imwatching.
  • Love,DimitriDespite his "warm wishes" I didnt really find the letter inspiring as I tossed it onto my bed andblearily left the room. I tried not to let his words get to me, though it was kind of impossible tonot be creeped out by something like that. There is no place in this world you can hide from me.I didnt doubt it. I knew Dimitri had spies. Since my former instructor-turned-lover had beenturned into an evil, undead vampire, hed also become a sort of leader among them--somethingId helped speed along when I killed off his former boss. I suspected a lot of his spies werehumans, watching for me to step outside my schools borders. No Strigoi could have stayed on atwenty-four-hour stakeout. Humans could, and Id recently learned that plenty of humans werewilling to serve the Strigoi in exchange for the promise of being turned someday. Those humansconsidered eternal life worth corrupting their souls and killing off others to survive. Thosehumans made me sick.But the humans werent what made my steps falter as I walked through grass that had turnedbright green with summers touch. It was Dimitri. Always Dimitri. Dimitri, the man Id loved.Dimitri, the Strigoi I wanted to save. Dimitri, the monster Id most likely have to kill. The lovewed shared always burned within me, no matter how often I told myself to move on, no matterhow much the world did think Id moved on. He was always with me, always on my mind,always making me question myself."You look like youre ready to face an army."I shifted out of my dark thoughts. Id been so fixated on Dimitri and his letter that Id beenwalking across campus, oblivious to the world, and hadnt noticed my best friend, Lissa, fallinginto step with me, a teasing smile on her face. Her catching me by surprise was a rarity becausewe shared a psychic bond, one that always kept me aware of her presence and feelings. I had tobe pretty distracted to not notice her, and if ever there was a distraction, it was someone wantingto kill me.
  • I gave Lissa what I hoped was a convincing smile. She knew what had happened to Dimitri andhow he was now waiting to kill me after Id tried--and failed--to kill him. Nonetheless, the lettersI got from him every week worried her, and she had enough to deal with in her life without myundead stalker to add to the list."I kind of am facing an army," I pointed out. It was early evening, but late summer still found thesun up in the Montana sky, bathing us in golden light as we walked. I loved it, but as a Moroi--apeaceful, living vampire--Lissa would eventually grow weak and uncomfortable in it.She laughed and tossed her platinum hair over one shoulder. The sun lit up the pale color intoangelic brilliance. "I suppose. I didnt think youd really be all that worried."I could understand her reasoning. Even Dimitri had said these would be a waste of my time.After all, Id gone to Russia to search for him and had faced real Strigoi--killing a number ofthem on my own. Maybe I shouldnt have been afraid of the upcoming tests, but all the fanfareand expectation suddenly pressed in upon me. My heart rate increased. What if I couldnt do it?What if I wasnt as good as I thought I was? The guardians who would challenge me out heremight not be true Strigoi, but they were skilled and had been fighting a lot longer than me.Arrogance could get me into a lot of trouble, and if I failed, Id be doing it in front of all thepeople who cared about me. All the people who had such faith in me.One other thing also concerned me."Im worried about how these grades will affect my future," I said. That was the truth. The trialswere the final exam for a novice guardian like me. They ensured I could graduate from St.Vladimirs Academy and take my place with true guardians who defended Moroi from theStrigoi. The trials pretty much decided which Moroi a guardian would be assigned to.Through our bond, I felt Lissas compassion--and her worry. "Alberta thinks theres a goodchance we can stay together--that youll still be my guardian."
  • I grimaced. "I think Alberta was saying that to keep me in school." Id dropped out to huntDimitri a few months ago and then returned--something that didnt look good on my academicrecord. There was also the small fact that the Moroi queen, Tatiana, hated me and wouldprobably be going out of her way to influence my assignment--but that was another story. "Ithink Alberta knows the only way theyd let me protect you is if I was the last guardian on earth.And even then, my odds would still be pretty slim."Ahead of us, the roar of a crowd grew loud. One of the schools many sports fields had beentransformed into an arena on par with something from Roman gladiatorial days. The bleachershad been built up, expanded from simple wooden seats to luxuriously cushioned benches withawnings to shade the Moroi from the sun. Banners surrounded the field, their bright colorsvisible from here as they whipped in the wind. I couldnt see them yet, but I knew there would besome type of barracks built near the stadiums entrance where novices waited, nerves on edge.The field itself would have turned into an obstacle course of dangerous tests. And from the soundof those deafening cheers, plenty were already there to witness this event."Im not giving up hope," Lissa said. Through the bond, I knew she meant it. It was one of thewonderful things about her--a steadfast faith and optimism that weathered the most terribleordeals. It was a sharp contrast to my recent cynicism. "And Ive got something that might helpyou out today."She came to a stop and reached into her jeans pocket, producing a small silver ring scattered withtiny stones that looked like peridots. I didnt need any bond to understand what she was offering."Oh, Liss... I dont know. I dont want any, um, unfair advantage."Lissa rolled her eyes. "Thats not the problem, and you know it. This ones fine, I swear."The ring she offered me was a charm, infused with the rare type of magic she wielded. All Moroihad control of one of five elements: earth, air, water, fire, or spirit. Spirit was the rarest--so rare,it had been forgotten over the centuries. Then Lissa and a few others had recently surfaced withit. Unlike the other elements, which were more physical in nature, spirit was tied into the mindand all sorts of psychic phenomena. No one fully understood it.
  • Making charms with spirit was something Lissa had only recently begun to experiment with--andshe wasnt very good at it. Her best spirit ability was healing, so she kept trying to make healingcharms. The last one had been a bracelet that singed my arm."This one works. Only a little, but itll help keep the darkness away during the trial."She spoke lightly, but we both knew the seriousness of her words. With all of spirits gifts came acost: a darkness that showed itself now as anger and confusion, and eventually led to insanity.Darkness that sometimes bled over into me through our bond. Lissa and I had been told that withcharms and her healing, we could fight it off. That was also something we had yet to master.I gave her a faint smile, moved by her concern, and accepted the ring. It didnt scald my hand,which I took as a promising sign. It was tiny and only fit on my pinky. I felt nothing whatsoeveras it slid on. Sometimes that happened with healing charms. Or it could mean the ring wascompletely ineffectual. Either way, no harm done."Thanks," I said. I felt delight sweep through her, and we continued walking.I held my hand out before me, admiring the way the green stones glittered. Jewelry wasnt a greatidea in the kind of physical ordeals Id be facing, but I would have gloves on to cover it."Hard to believe that after this, well be done here and out in the real world," I mused aloud, notreally considering my words.Beside me, Lissa stiffened, and I immediately regretted speaking. "Being out in the real world"meant Lissa and I were going to undertake a task shed--unhappily--promised to help me with acouple months ago.
  • While in Siberia, Id learned there might be a way to restore Dimitri back to being a dhampir likeme. It was a long shot--possibly a lie--and considering the way he was fixated on killing me, Ihad no illusions that I would have any other choice but to kill him if it came down to him or me.But if there was a way I might save him before that happened, I had to find out.Unfortunately, the only lead we had to making this miracle come true was through a criminal.Not just any criminal either: Victor Dashkov, a royal Moroi who had tortured Lissa andcommitted all sorts of other atrocities that had made our lives hell. Justice had been served, andVictor was locked away in prison, which complicated things. Wed learned that so long as he wasdestined for a life behind bars, he saw no reason to share what he knew about his half-brother--the only person who had once allegedly saved a Strigoi. Id decided--possibly illogically--thatVictor might give up the information if we offered him the one thing no one else could: freedom.This idea was not foolproof, for a number of reasons. First, I didnt know if it would work. Thatwas kind of a big thing. Second, I had no idea how to stage a prison break, let alone where hisprison even was. And finally, there was the fact that we would be releasing our mortal enemy.That was devastating enough to me, let alone Lissa. Yet as much as the idea troubled her--andbelieve me, it did--shed firmly sworn she would help me. Id offered to free her from the promisedozens of times in the last couple months, but shed stood firm. Of course, considering we had noway to even find the prison, her promise might not matter in the end.I tried to fill the awkward silence between us, explaining instead that Id really meant wed beable to celebrate her birthday in style next week. My attempts were interrupted by Stan, one ofmy longtime instructors. "Hathaway!" he barked, coming from the direction of the field. "Nice ofyou to join us. Get in there now!"Thoughts of Victor vanished from Lissas mind. Lissa gave me a quick hug. "Good luck," shewhispered. "Not that you need it."Stans expression told me that this ten-second goodbye was ten seconds too long. I gave Lissa agrin by way of thanks, and then she headed off to find our friends in the stands while I scurriedafter Stan.
  • "Youre lucky you arent one of the first ones," he growled. "People were even making bets aboutwhether youd show.""Really?" I asked cheerfully. "What kind of odds are there on that? Because I can still change mymind and put down my own bet. Make a little pocket money."His narrowed eyes shot me a warning that needed no words as we entered the waiting areaadjacent to the field, across from the stands. It had always amazed me in past years how muchwork went into these trials, and I was no less impressed now as I saw it up close. The barrackthat novices waited in was constructed out of wood, complete with a roof. The structure lookedas though it had been part of the stadium forever. It had been built with remarkable speed andwould be taken down equally quickly once the trials were over. A doorway about three peoplewide gave a partial glimpse onto the field, where one of my classmates was waiting anxiously forher name to be called. All sorts of obstacles were set up there, challenges to test balance andcoordination while still having to battle and elude the adult guardians who would be lurkingaround objects and corners. Wooden walls had been constructed on one end of the field, creatinga dark and confusing maze. Nets and shaky platforms hung across other areas, designed to testjust how well we could fight under difficult conditions.A few of the other novices crowded the doorway, hoping to get an advantage by watching thosewho went ahead of them. Not me. I would go in there blind, content to take on whatever theythrew before me. Studying the course now would simply make me overthink and panic. Calmwas what I needed now.So I leaned against one of the barrack walls and watched those around me. It appeared that Ireally had been the last to show up, and I wondered if people had actually lost money betting onme. Some of my classmates whispered in clusters. Some were doing stretches and warm-upexercises. Others stood with instructors who had been mentors. Those teachers spoke intently totheir students, giving last-minute words of advice. I kept hearing words like focus and calmdown.Seeing the instructors made my heart clench. Not so long ago, that was how Id pictured this day.Id imagined Dimitri and me standing together, with him telling me to take this seriously and notto lose my cool when I was out on the field. Alberta had done a fair amount of mentoring for me
  • since Id returned from Russia, but as captain, she was out on the field herself now, busy with allsorts of responsibilities. She had no time to come in here and hold my hand. Friends of mine whomight have offered comfort--Eddie, Meredith, and others--were wrapped up in their own fears. Iwas alone.Without her or Dimitri--or, well, anyone--I felt a surprising ache of loneliness flow through me.This wasnt right. I shouldnt have been alone. Dimitri should have been here with me. Thatshow it was supposed to have been. Closing my eyes, I allowed myself to pretend he was reallythere, only inches away as we spoke."Dont worry, comrade. I can do this blindfolded. Hell, maybe I actually will. Do you haveanything I can use? If youre nice to me, Ill even let you tie it on." Since this fantasy would havetaken place after wed slept together, there was a strong possibility that he would have laterhelped me take off that blindfold--among other things.I could perfectly picture the exasperated shake of his head that would earn me. "Rose, I swear,sometimes it feels like every day with you is my own personal trial."But I knew hed smile anyway, and the look of pride and encouragement hed give me as Iheaded toward the field would be all I needed to get through the tests--"Are you meditating?"I opened my eyes, astonished at the voice. "Mom? What are you doing here?"My mother, Janine Hathaway, stood in front of me. She was just a few inches shorter than mebut had enough fight in her for someone twice my size. The dangerous look on her tanned facedared anyone to bring on a challenge. She gave me a wry smile and put one hand on her hip."Did you honestly think I wouldnt come to watch you?"
  • "I dont know," I admitted, feeling kind of guilty for doubting her. She and I hadnt had muchcontact over the years, and it was only recent events--most of them bad--that had begun toreestablish our connection. Most of the time, I still didnt know how to feel about her. I oscillatedbetween a little girls need for her absent mother and a teenagers resentment over abandonment.I also wasnt entirely sure if Id forgiven her for the time she "accidentally" punched me in amock fight. "I figured youd have, you know, more important things to do.""Theres no way I could miss this." She inclined her head toward the stands, making her auburncurls sway. "Neither could your father.""What?"I hurried toward the doorway and peered out onto the fields. My view of the stands wasntfantastic, thanks to all the obstacles on the field, but it was good enough. There he was: AbeMazur. He was easy to spot, with his black beard and mustache, as well as the emerald greenscarf knotted over his dress shirt. I could even barely make out the glint of his gold earring. Hehad to be melting in this heat, but I figured it would take more than a little sweat for him to tamedown his flashy fashion sense.If my relationship with my mother was sketchy, my relationship with my father was practicallynonexistent. Id met him back in May, and even then, it wasnt until after Id gotten back that Ifound out I was his daughter. All dhampirs had one Moroi parent, and he was mine. I still wasntsure how I felt about him. Most of his background remained a mystery, but there were plenty ofrumors that he was involved with illegal business. People also acted like he was the kneecap-breaking type, and though Id seen little evidence of this, I didnt find it surprising. In Russia,they called him Zmey: the serpent.While I stared at him in astonishment, my mom strolled over to my side. "Hell be happy youmade it in time," she said. "Hes running some big wager on whether youd show. He put hismoney on you, if that makes you feel any better."
  • I groaned. "Of course. Of course hed be the bookie behind the pool. I should have known assoon as--" My jaw dropped. "Is he talking to Adrian?"Yup. Sitting beside Abe was Adrian Ivashkov--my more-or-less boyfriend. Adrian was a royalMoroi--and another spirit user like Lissa. Hed been crazy about me (and often just crazy) eversince we first met, but Id had eyes only for Dimitri. After the failure in Russia, Id returned andpromised to give Adrian a shot. To my surprise, things had been... good between us. Great, even.Hed written me up a proposal of why dating him was a sound decision. It had included thingslike "Ill give up cigarettes unless I really, really need one" and "Ill unleash romantic surprisesevery week, such as: an impromptu picnic, roses, or a trip to Paris--but not actually any of thosethings because now theyre not surprises."Being with him wasnt like it had been with Dimitri, but then, I supposed, no two relationshipscould ever be exactly alike. They were different men, after all. I still woke up all the time, achingover the loss of Dimitri and our love. I tormented myself over my failure to kill him in Siberiaand free him from his undead state. Still, that despair didnt mean my romantic life was over--something it had taken me a while to accept. Moving on was hard, but Adrian did make mehappy. And for now, that was enough.But that didnt necessarily mean I wanted him cozying up to my pirate mobster father either."Hes a bad influence!" I protested.My mother snorted. "I doubt Adrian will influence Abe that much.""Not Adrian! Abe. Adrians trying to be on good behavior. Abe will mess everything up." Alongwith smoking, Adrian had sworn hed quit drinking and other vices in his dating proposal. Isquinted at him and Abe across the crowded stands, trying to figure out what topic could be sointeresting. "What are they talking about?""I think thats the least of your problems right now." Janine Hathaway was nothing if notpractical. "Worry less about them and more about that field."
  • "Do you think theyre talking about me?""Rose!" My mother gave me a light punch on the arm, and I dragged my eyes back to her. "Youhave to take this seriously. Keep calm, and dont get distracted."Her words were so like what Id imagined Dimitri saying that a small smile crept onto my face. Iwasnt alone out here after all."Whats so funny?" she asked warily."Nothing," I said, giving her a hug. She was stiff at first and then relaxed, actually hugging meback briefly before stepping away. "Im glad youre here."My mother wasnt the overly affectionate type, and Id caught her off guard. "Well," she said,obviously flustered, "I told you I wouldnt miss this."I glanced back at the stands. "Abe, on the other hand, Im not so sure of."Or... wait. An odd idea came to me. No, not so odd, actually. Shady or not, Abe had connections--ones extensive enough to slip a message to Victor Dashkov in prison. Abe had been the one toask for info about Robert Doru, Victors spirit-wielding brother, as a favor to me. When Victorhad sent back the message saying he had no reason to help Abe with what he needed, Idpromptly written off my fathers assistance and jumped to my prison-break idea. But now--"Rosemarie Hathaway!"
  • It was Alberta who called me, her voice ringing loud and clear. It was like a trumpet, a call tobattle. All thoughts of Abe and Adrian--and yes, even Dimitri--vanished from my mind. I thinkmy mother wished me good luck, but the exact wording was lost on me as I strode towardAlberta and the field. Adrenaline surged through me. All my attention was now on what layahead: the test that would finally make me a guardian. Chapter TwoMY TRIALS WERE A BLUR.Youd think, seeing as they were the most important part of my education at St. Vladimirs, thatId remember everything in perfect, crystalline detail. Yet my earlier thoughts were kind ofrealized. How could these measure up to what Id already faced? How could these mock fightscompare to a mob of Strigoi descending on our school? Id had to stand against overwhelmingodds, not knowing if those I loved were alive or dead. And how could I fear a so-called battlewith one of the schools instructors after having fought Dimitri? Hed been lethal as a dhampirand worse as a Strigoi.Not that I meant to make light of the trials. They were serious. Novices failed them all the time,and I refused to be one of them. I was attacked on all sides, by guardians whod been fighting anddefending Moroi since before I was born. The arena wasnt flat, which complicated everything.Theyd filled it with contraptions and obstacles, beams and steps that tested my balance--including a bridge that painfully reminded me of that last night Id seen Dimitri. Id pushed himafter plunging a silver stake into his heart--a stake that had fallen out during his plummet to theriver below.The arenas bridge was a bit different from the solid wooden one upon which Dimitri and I hadfought in Siberia. This one was rickety, a badly constructed path of wooden planks with onlyrope rails for support. Every step made the entire bridge swing and shake, and holes in the boardsshowed me where former classmates had (unfortunately for them) discovered weak spots. Thetest they assigned me on the bridge was probably the worst of all. My goal was to get a "Moroi"away from a group of "Strigoi" that were in pursuit. My Moroi was being played by Daniel, anew guardian who had come with others to the school to replace those killed in the attack. Ididnt know him very well, but for this exercise, he was playing completely docile and helpless--even a little afraid, just as any Moroi I was guarding might have been.
  • He gave me a little resistance about stepping onto the bridge, and I used my calmest, mostcoaxing voice to finally get him to walk out ahead of me. Apparently they were testing peopleskills as well as combat skills. Not far behind us on the course, I knew the guardians acting asStrigoi were approaching.Daniel stepped out, and I shadowed him, still giving him reassurances while all my senses stayedon alert. The bridge swung wildly, telling me with a jolt that our pursuers had joined us. Iglanced back and saw three "Strigoi" coming after us. The guardians playing them were doing aremarkable job--moving with as much dexterity and speed as true Strigoi would. They weregoing to overtake us if we didnt get a move on."Youre doing great," I told Daniel. It was hard to keep the right tone in my voice. Screaming atMoroi might put them into shock. Too much gentleness would make them think it wasnt serious."And I know you can move faster. We need to keep ahead of them--theyre getting closer. I knowyou can do this. Come on."I must have passed that persuasive part of the test because he did indeed pick up his speed--notquite enough to match that of our pursuers, but it was a start. The bridge shifted crazily again.Daniel yelped convincingly and froze, gripping the rope sides tightly. Ahead of him, I sawanother guardian-as-Strigoi waiting on the opposite side of the bridge. I believed his name wasRandall, another new instructor. I was sandwiched between him and the group at my back. ButRandall stayed still, waiting on the first plank of the bridge so that he could shake it and make itharder for us."Keep going," I urged, my mind spinning. "You can do it.""But theres a Strigoi there! Were trapped," Daniel exclaimed."Dont worry. Ill deal with him. Just move."My voice was fierce this time, and Daniel crept forward, pushed on by my command. The nextfew moments required perfect timing on my part. I had to watch the "Strigoi" on both sides of us
  • and keep Daniel in motion, all the while monitoring where we were on the bridge. When wewere almost three quarters of the way across, I hissed, "Drop down on all fours right now!Hurry!"He obeyed, coming to a halt. I immediately knelt, still speaking in an undertone: "Im about toshout at you. Ignore it." In a louder voice, for the benefit of those coming after us, I exclaimed,"What are you doing? We cant stop!"Daniel didnt budge, and I again spoke softly. "Good. See where the ropes connect the base to therails? Grab them. Grab them as tightly as you can, and do not let go, no matter what happens.Wrap them around your hands if you have to. Do it now!"He obeyed. The clock was ticking, and I didnt waste another moment. In one motion, while stillcrouched, I turned around and hacked at the ropes with a knife Id been given along with mystake. The blade was sharp, thank God. The guardians running the trial werent messing around.It didnt instantly slice the ropes, but I cut through them so quickly that the "Strigoi" on eitherside of us didnt have time to react.The ropes snapped just as I again reminded Daniel to hold on. The two halves of the bridgeswung toward the sides of wooden scaffolding, carried by the weight of the people on them.Well, ours did at least. Daniel and I had been prepared. The three pursuers behind us hadnt been.Two fell. One just barely managed to catch hold of a plank, slipping a bit before securing hisgrip. The actual drop was six feet, but Id been told to regard it as fifty--a distance that would killme and Daniel if we fell.Against all odds, he was still clutching the rope. I was hanging on as well, and once the rope andwood were lying flat against the scaffoldings sides, I began scrambling up it like a ladder. Itwasnt easy climbing over Daniel, but I did it, giving me one more chance to tell him to hang on.Randall, whod been waiting ahead of us, hadnt fallen off. Hed had his feet on the bridge when Icut it, though, and had been surprised enough to lose his balance. Quick to recover, he was nowshimmying up the ropes, trying to climb up to the solid surface above. He was much closer to itthan me, but I just managed to grab his leg and stop him. I jerked him toward me. He maintainedhis grip on the bridge, and we struggled. I knew I probably couldnt pull him off, but I was ableto keep getting closer. At last, I let go of the knife Id been holding and managed to get the stake
  • from my belt--something that tested my balance. Randalls ungainly position gave me a shot athis heart, and I took it.For the trials, we had blunt-ended stakes, ones that wouldnt pierce skin but which could be usedwith enough force to convince our opponents that we knew what we were doing. My alignmentwas perfect, and Randall, conceding it would have been a killing blow, relinquished his hold anddropped off the bridge.That left me the painful task of coaxing Daniel to climb up. It took a long time, but again, hisbehavior wasnt out of character with how a scared Moroi might behave. I was just grateful hehadnt decided a real Moroi would have lost his grip and fallen.After that challenge came many more, but I fought on, never slowing down or letting exhaustionaffect me. I slipped into battle mode, my senses focused on basic instincts: fight, dodge, kill.And while staying tuned to those, I still had to be innovative and not fall into a lull. Otherwise, Iwouldnt be able to react to a surprise like the bridge. I managed it all, battling on with no otherthoughts beyond accomplishing the tasks before me. I tried not to think of my instructors aspeople I knew. I treated them like Strigoi. I pulled no punches.When it finally ended, I almost didnt realize it. I was simply standing there in the middle of thefield with no more attackers coming at me. I was alone. Slowly, I became more aware of theworlds details. Crowds in the stands cheering.A few instructors nodding to each other as theyjoined in.The pounding of my own heart.It wasnt until a grinning Alberta tugged at my arm that I realized it was over. The test Id waitedfor my entire life, finished in what felt like a blink of an eye."Come on," she said, wrapping her arm around my shoulder and guiding me toward the exit."You need to get some water and sit down."
  • Dazed, I let her lead me off the field, around which people were still cheering and crying myname. Behind us, I heard some people saying they had to take a break and fix the bridge. She ledme back to the waiting area and gently pushed me onto a bench. Someone else sat beside me andhanded me a bottle of water. I looked over and saw my mother. She had an expression on herface that I had never seen before: pure, radiant pride."That was it?" I asked at last.She surprised me again with genuinely amused laughter. "That was it?" she repeated. "Rose, youwere out there for almost an hour. You blew through that test with flying colors--probably one ofthe best trials this schools ever seen.""Really? It just seemed..." Easy wasnt quite the right word. "It was a haze, thats all."My mom squeezed my hand. "You were amazing. Im so, so proud of you."The realization of it all truly, truly hit me then, and I felt a smile of my own spreading over mylips. "Now what happens?" I asked."Now you become a guardian."Id been tattooed many times, but none of those events came close to the ceremony and fanfarethat occurred while getting my promise mark. Before, Id received molnija marks for kills Idmade in unexpected, tragic circumstances: fighting Strigoi in Spokane, the school attack andrescue--events that were cause for mourning, not celebration. After all those kills, wed kind oflost count, and while guardian tattoo artists still tried to log every individual kill, theyd finallygiven me a star-shaped mark that was a fancy way of saying wed lost count.
  • Tattooing isnt a fast process, even if youre getting a small one, and my entire graduating classhad to get them. The ceremony took place in what was usually the Academys dining room, aroom they were able to remarkably transform into something as grand and elaborate as wed findat the Royal Court. Spectators--friends, family, guardians--packed the room as Alberta called ournames one at a time and read our scores as we approached the tattoo artist. The scores wereimportant. They would be made public and, along with our overall school grades, influence ourassignments. Moroi could request certain grads for their guardians. Lissa had requested me, ofcourse, but even the best scores in the world might not compensate for all the black behavioralmarks on my record.There were no Moroi at this ceremony, though, aside from the handful who had been invited asguests by the new graduates. Everyone else gathered was a dhampir: either one of the establishedguardians or about-to-become-guardians like me. The guests sat in the back, and the seniorguardians sat near the front. My classmates and I stood the whole time, maybe as some sort oflast test of endurance.I didnt mind. Id changed out of my torn and dirty clothes into simple slacks and a sweater, anoutfit that seemed dressy while still retaining a solemn feel. It was a good call because the air inthe room was thick with tension, all faces a mix of joy at our success but also anxiety about ournew and deadly role in the world. I watched with shining eyes as my friends were called up,surprised and impressed at many of the scores.Eddie Castile, a close friend, got a particularly high score in one-on-one Moroi protection. Icouldnt help a smile as I watched the tattooist give Eddie his mark. "I wonder how he got hisMoroi over the bridge," I murmured in an undertone. Eddie was pretty resourceful.Beside me, another friend of mine, Meredith, gave me a puzzled look. "What are you talkingabout?" Her voice was equally soft."When we were chased onto the bridge with a Moroi. Mine was Daniel." She still lookedconfused, and I elaborated. "And they put Strigoi on each side?"
  • "I crossed the bridge," she whispered, "but it was just me being chased. I took my Moroi througha maze."A glare from a nearby classmate shut us up, and I hid my frown. Maybe I wasnt the only onewhod gone through the trial in a daze. Meredith had her facts screwed up.When my name was called, I heard a few gasps as Alberta read my scores. I had the highest inthe class by far. I was kind of glad she didnt read my academic grades. They would have totallytaken away some of the glory of the rest of my performance. Id always done well in my combatclasses, but math and history... well, those were a bit lacking, particularly since I always seemedto be dropping in and out of school.My hair was pulled tightly into a bun, with every stray wisp held with hairpins so that the artistwould have nothing to interfere with his work. I leaned forward to give him a good view andheard him grunt in surprise. With the back of my neck covered in marks, hed have to be tricky.Usually a new guardian provided a blank canvas. This guy was good, though, and managed todelicately place the promise mark in the center of the nape of my neck after all. The promisemark looked like a long, stretched-out S, with curly ends. He fit it in between the molnija marks,letting it wrap around them like an embrace. The process hurt, but I kept my face blank, refusingto flinch. I was shown the final results in a mirror before he covered it up with a bandage so itwould heal cleanly.After that, I rejoined my classmates and watched as the rest of them received their tattoos. Itmeant standing for another two hours, but I didnt mind. My brain was still reeling witheverything that had happened today. I was a guardian. A real, honest-to-goodness guardian. Andwith that thought came questions. What would happen now? Would my scores be good enoughto erase my record of bad behavior? Would I be Lissas guardian? And what about Victor? Whatabout Dimitri?I shifted uneasily as the full impact of the guardian ceremony hit me. This wasnt just aboutDimitri and Victor. This was about me--about the rest of my life. School was over. I would nolonger have teachers tracking my every move or correcting me when I made mistakes. Alldecisions would be on me when I was out protecting someone. Moroi and younger dhampirswould look to me as the authority. And I would no longer have the luxury of practicing combat
  • one minute and lounging in my room the next. There were no clear-cut classes anymore. I wouldbe on duty all the time. The thought was daunting, the pressure almost too great. Id alwaysequated graduation with freedom. Now I wasnt so sure. What new shape was my life going totake? Who would decide? And how could I reach Victor if I was assigned to guard anyonebesides Lissa?Across the room, I met Lissas eyes among the audience. They burned with a pride that matchedmy mothers, and she grinned when our gazes met.Get that look off your face, she chastised through the bond. You shouldnt look that anxious, nottoday. You need to celebrate.I knew she was right. I could handle what was to come. My worries, which were many, couldwait one more day--particularly since the exuberant mood of my friends and family ensured thatI would celebrate. Abe, with that influence he always seemed to wield, had secured a smallbanquet room and thrown a party for me that seemed more suited to a royal debutante, not somelowly, reckless dhampir.Before the event, I changed yet again. Prettier party clothes now seemed more appropriate thanthe formal molnija ceremony outfit. I put on a short-sleeved, emerald green wrap dress and hungmy nazar around my neck, even though it didnt match. The nazar was a small pendant thatlooked like an eye, with different shades of blue circling it. In Turkey, where Abe came from, itwas believed to offer protection. Hed given it to my mother years ago, and shed in turn given itto me.By the time Id put on makeup and brushed out my tangled hair into long, dark waves (becausemy tattoo bandages didnt go with the dress at all), I hardly looked like someone capable offighting monsters or even throwing a punch. No--that wasnt quite true, I realized a moment later.Staring into the mirror, I was surprised to see a haunted look in my brown eyes. There was painthere, pain and loss that even the nicest dress and makeup couldnt hide.I ignored it and set off for the party, promptly running into Adrian as soon as I stepped outsidemy dorm. Without a word, he swept me into his arms and smothered me with a kiss. I was totally
  • caught off guard. It figured. Undead creatures didnt surprise me, but one flippant royal Moroicould.And it was quite the kiss, one that I almost felt guilty about sinking into. Id had concerns whenfirst dating Adrian, but many of them had disappeared over time. After watching him flirtshamelessly and take nothing seriously for so long, Id never expected to see such devotion fromhim in our relationship. I also hadnt expected to find my feelings for him growing--whichseemed so contradictory considering I still loved Dimitri and was concocting impossible ways tosave him.I laughed when Adrian set me down. Nearby, a few younger Moroi had stopped to watch us.Moroi dating dhampirs wasnt super uncommon at our age, but a notorious dhampir dating theMoroi queens great-nephew? That was kind of out there--especially since it was widely knownhow much Queen Tatiana hated me. There had been few witnesses to my last meeting with her,when shed screamed at me to stay away from Adrian, but word of that kind of thing always getsaround."Like the show?" I asked our voyeurs. Realizing theyd been busted, the Moroi kids hastilycontinued on their way. I turned back to Adrian and smiled. "What was that? It was kind of a bigkiss to throw on me in public.""That," he said grandly, "was your reward for kicking so much ass in those trials." He paused. "Itwas also because you look totally hot in that dress."I gave him a wry look. "Reward, huh? Merediths boyfriend got her diamond earrings."He caught hold of my hand and gave an unconcerned shrug as we began to walk to the party."You want diamonds? Ill give you diamonds. Ill shower you in them. Hell, Ill get you a gownmade out of them. But its going to be skimpy.""I think Ill settle for the kiss after all," I said, imagining Adrian dressing me like a swimsuitmodel. Or a pole dancer. The jewelry reference also suddenly brought on an unwanted memory.
  • When Dimitri had held me captive in Siberia, lulling me into blissful complacency with his bites,hed showered me with jewelry too."I knew you were a badass," continued Adrian. A warm summer breeze ruffled the brown hair heso painstakingly styled each day, and with his free hand, he absentmindedly tried to arrange itback into place. "But I didnt realize just how much until I saw you dropping guardians outthere.""Does that mean youre going to be nicer to me?" I teased."Im already nice to you," he said loftily. "Do you know how badly I want a cigarette right now?But no. I manfully suffer through nicotine withdrawal--all for you. But I think seeing you outthere will make me a little more careful around you. That crazy dad of yours is kind of gonnamake me cautious too."I groaned, recalling how Adrian and Abe had been sitting together. "God. Did you really have tohang out with him?""Hey, hes awesome. A little unstable, but awesome. We got along great." Adrian opened thedoor to the building we were seeking. "And hes a badass in his way too. I mean, any other guywho wore scarves like that? Hed be laughed out of this school. Not Abe. Hed beat someonealmost as badly as you would. In fact..." Adrians voice turned nervous. I gave him a surprisedlook."In fact what?""Well... Abe said he liked me. But he also made it clear what hed do to me if I ever hurt you ordid anything bad." Adrian grimaced. "In fact, he described what hed do in very graphic detail.Then, just like that, he switched to some random, happy topic. I like the guy, but hes scary."
  • "Hes out of line!" I came to a halt outside the partys room. Through the door, I heard the buzz ofconversation. We were apparently among the last to arrive. I guessed that meant Id be making agrand entrance fitting for the guest of honor. "He has no right to threaten my boyfriends. Imeighteen. An adult. I dont need his help. I can threaten my boyfriends myself."My indignation amused Adrian, and he gave me a lazy smile. "I agree with you. But that doesntmean Im not going to take his advice seriously. My face is too pretty to risk."His face was pretty, but that didnt stop me from shaking my head in exasperation. I reached forthe doors handle, but Adrian pulled me back."Wait," he said.He drew me into his arms again, our lips meeting in another hot kiss. My body pressed to his,and I found myself confused by my own feelings and the realization that I was reaching a pointwhere I might want more than just kissing."Okay," said Adrian when wed finally broken away. "Now we can go in."He had that same light tone to his voice, but in his dark green eyes, I saw the kindling of passion.I wasnt the only one considering more than just kissing. So far, wed avoided discussing sex, andhed actually been very good about not pressuring me. I think he knew I just wasnt ready afterDimitri, but in moments like these, I could see just how difficult it was for Adrian to hold back.It softened something inside of me, and standing on my tiptoes, I gave him another kiss. "Whatwas that?" he asked a few moments later.I grinned. "Your reward."
  • When we finally made it into the party, everyone in the room greeted me with cheers and proudsmiles. A long time ago, Id thrived on being the center of attention. That desire had faded alittle, but now, I put on a confident face and accepted my loved ones praise with swagger andhappiness. I held up my hands triumphantly, earning more clapping and approval.My party was almost as much of a blur as my trials. You never really realize how many peoplecare about you until they all turn out to support you. It made me feel humble and almost a littleteary. I kept that to myself, though. I could hardly start crying at my own victory party.Everyone wanted to talk to me, and I was surprised and delighted each time some new personapproached me. It wasnt often that I had all the people I loved best in one place, and, uneasily Irealized this opportunity might never come again."Well, youve finally got a license to kill. Its about time."I turned and met the amused eyes of Christian Ozera, a onetime annoyance whod become a goodfriend. So good, in fact, that in my joyous zeal, I reached out and hugged him--something heclearly didnt expect. I was surprising everyone today."Whoa, whoa," he said backing up, flushing. "It figures. Youre the only girl whod get allemotional about the thought of killing. I dont even want to think about what goes on when youand Ivashkov are alone.""Hey, look whos talking. Youre itching to get out there yourself."Christian shrugged by way of agreement. It was a standard rule in our world: Guardiansprotected Moroi. Moroi didnt get involved in battles. Yet after recent Strigoi attacks, a lot ofMoroi--though hardly a majority--had begun to argue that it was time for Moroi to step up andstart helping the guardians. Fire users like Christian were particularly valuable since burning wasone of the best ways to kill a Strigoi (along with staking and decapitation). The movement toteach Moroi to fight was currently--and purposely--stalled in the Moroi government, but that
  • hadnt stopped some Moroi from practicing in secret. Christian was one of them. Glancing besidehim, I blinked in astonishment. There was someone with him, someone Id hardly noticed.Jill Mastrano hovered near him like a shadow. A Moroi freshman--well, soon to be a sophomore--Jill had come forward as someone who also wanted to fight. She had sort of become Christiansstudent."Hey Jill," I said, giving her a warm smile. "Thanks for coming."Jill flushed. She was determined to learn to defend herself, but she grew flustered among others--particularly around "celebrities" like me. Rambling was her nervous reaction. "I had to," shesaid, brushing her long, light brown hair out of her face. Like always, it was a tangle of curls. "Imean, its so cool what you did. At the trials. Everyone was amazed. I heard one of the guardianssaying that theyd never seen anything like you, so when Christian asked if I wanted to come, ofcourse I had to. Oh!" Her light green eyes went wide. "I didnt even tell you congratulations.Sorry. Congratulations."Beside her, Christian struggled to keep a straight face. I made no such attempts and laughinglygave her a hug too. I was in serious danger of turning warm and fuzzy. Id probably get my toughguardian status revoked if I kept this up. "Thanks. Are you two ready to take on a Strigoi armyyet?""Soon," said Christian. "But we might need your backup." He knew as well as I did that Strigoiwere way out of their league. His fire magic had helped me a lot, but on his own? Thatd be adifferent story. He and Jill were teaching themselves to use magic offensively, and when Id hadtime between classes, Id taught them a few combat moves.Jills face fell a little. "Its going to stop once Christians gone."I turned to him. It was no surprise hed be leaving. Wed all be leaving. "What are you going todo with yourself?" I asked.
  • He shrugged. "Go to Court with the rest of you. Aunt Tasha says were going to have a talkabout my future." He grimaced. Whatever his plans were, it looked like they werent the same asTashas. Most royal Moroi would head off to elite colleges. I wasnt sure what Christian had inmind.It was standard practice after graduation for new guardians to go to the Moroi Royal Court fororientation and to get their assignments. We were all due to leave in a couple of days. FollowingChristians gaze, I saw his aunt across the room, and so help me, she was talking to Abe.Tasha Ozera was in her late twenties, with the same glossy black hair and ice blue eyes thatChristian had. Her beautiful face was marred, however, by some terrible scarring on one side--the result of injuries inflicted by Christians own parents. Dimitri had been turned into a Strigoiagainst his will, but the Ozeras had purposely chosen to turn for the sake of immortality. It hadironically cost them their lives when the guardians hunted them down. Tasha had raisedChristian (when he wasnt at school) and was one of the main leaders in the movementsupporting those Moroi who wanted to fight Strigoi.Scar or not, I admired her and still thought she was beautiful. From my wayward fathers attitude,it was clear he did too. He poured her a glass of champagne and said something that made herlaugh. She leaned forward, like she was telling him a secret, and he laughed in return. My jawdropped. Even from this far away, it was obvious they were flirting."Dear God," I said with a shudder, hastily turning back to Christian and Jill.Christian seemed torn between smugness at my discomfort and his own unease at watching awoman he regarded as a mother get hit upon by a pirate mobster guy. A moment later, Christiansexpression softened as he turned back to Jill and continued our conversation."Hey, you dont need me," he said. "Youll find others around here. Youll have your ownsuperhero club before you know it."
  • I found myself smiling again, but my kindly feelings were suddenly shattered by a jolt ofjealousy. It wasnt my own, though. It was Lissas, coming through the bond. Startled, I glancedaround and spotted her across the room, giving Christian the look of death as he spoke to Jill.Its worth mentioning that Christian and Lissa used to date. More than date. Theyd been deeplyin love, and honestly, they kind of still were. Unfortunately, recent events had badly strainedtheir relationship, and Christian had broken up with her. Hed loved her but had lost his trust inher. Lissa had spun out of control when another spirit user named Avery Lazar had sought tocontrol her. Wed eventually stopped Avery, and she was currently locked away in a mentalinstitution, last Id heard. Christian now knew the reasons for Lissas horrible behavior, but thedamage was done. Lissa had initially been depressed, but her sorrow had now turned to anger.She claimed she wanted nothing to do with him anymore, but the bond gave her away. She wasalways jealous of any girl he talked to--particularly Jill, whom hed been spending a lot of timewith lately. I knew for a fact there was nothing romantic going on there. Jill idolized him as somewise teacher, nothing more. If she had a crush on anyone, it was Adrian, who always treated herlike a kid sister. We all kind of did, really.Christian followed my gaze, and his expression hardened. Realizing she had his attention, Lissaimmediately turned away and began talking to the first guy she found, a good-looking dhampirfrom my class. She turned on the flirtatious charm that came so easily to spirit users, and soon,both of them were laughing and chatting in a way similar to Abe and Tasha. My party had turnedinto a round of speed dating.Christian turned back to me. "Well, looks like shes got plenty to keep her busy."I rolled my eyes. Lissa wasnt the only one who was jealous. Just as she grew angry whenever hehung out with other girls, Christian became prickly when she spoke to other guys. It wasinfuriating. Rather than admit they still had feelings and just needed to patch things up, those twoidiots just kept displaying more and more hostility toward each other."Will you stop already and actually try to talk to her like a rational person someday?" I groaned.
  • "Sure," he said bitterly. "The day she starts acting like a rational person.""Oh my God. You guys are going to make me rip my hair out.""Itd be a waste of nice hair," said Christian. "Besides, shes made her attitude perfectly clear."I started to protest and tell him how stupid he was, but he had no intention of sticking around tohear a lecture Id already given a dozen times."Come on, Jill," he said. "Rose needs to mingle more."He quickly stepped away, and I had half a mind to go beat some sense into him when a newvoice spoke."When are you going to fix that?" Tasha was standing next to me, shaking her head at Christiansretreat. "Those two need to be back together.""I know that. You know that. But they cant seem to get it through their heads.""Well, youd better get on it," she said. "If Christian goes to college across the country, itll be toolate." There was a dry--and exasperated--note in her voice when she mentioned Christian goingto college.Lissa was going to Lehigh, a university near the Court, per an arrangement with Tatiana. Lissawould get to attend a bigger university than Moroi usually went to, in exchange for spendingtime at the Court and learning the royal trade.
  • "I know," I said in exasperation. "But why am I the one who has to fix it?"Tasha grinned. "Because youre the only one forceful enough to make them see reason."I decided to let Tashas insolence go, mostly because her talking to me meant that she wasnttalking to Abe. Glancing across the room, I suddenly stiffened. He was now talking to mymother. Snatches of their conversation came to me through the noise."Janine," he said winningly, "you havent aged a day. You could be Roses sister. Do youremember that night in Cappadocia?"My mother actually giggled. I had never heard her do that before. I decided I never wanted toagain. "Of course. And I remember how eager you were to help me when my dress strap broke.""Dear God," I said. "Hes unstoppable."Tasha looked puzzled until she saw what I was talking about. "Abe? Hes actually prettycharming."I groaned. "Excuse me."I headed toward my parents. I accepted that theyd once had a romance--one that led to myconception--but that didnt mean I wanted to watch them relive it. They were recounting somewalk on the beach when I reached them. I promptly tugged Abes arm away. He was standingway too close to her."Hey, can I talk to you?" I asked.
  • He looked surprised but shrugged. "Certainly." He gave my mother a knowing smile. "Well talkmore later.""Is no woman safe around here?" I demanded as I led him away."What are you talking about?"We came to a stop by the punch bowl. "Youre flirting with every woman in this room!"My chastising didnt faze him. "Well, there are so many lovely women here.... Is that what youwanted to talk to me about?""No! I wanted to talk to you about threatening my boyfriend. You had no right to do that."His dark eyebrows shot up. "What, that? That was nothing. Just a father looking out for hisdaughter.""Most fathers dont threaten to disembowel their daughters boyfriends.""Thats not true. And anyway, thats not what I actually said. It was much worse."I sighed. He seemed to delight in my exasperation."Think of it as a graduation gift. Im proud of you. Everyone knew youd be good, but no oneknew youd be that good." He winked. "They certainly didnt expect you to destroy theirproperty."
  • "What property?""The bridge."I frowned. "I had to. It was the most efficient way. God, that was a bitch of a challenge. Whatdthe other grads do? They didnt actually fight in the middle of that thing, did they?"Abe shook his head, loving every minute of his superior knowledge. "No one else was put in thatsituation.""Of course they were. We all face the same tests.""Not you. While planning the trials, the guardians decided you needed something... extra.Something special. After all, youd been out fighting in the real world.""What?" The volume of my voice caught the attention of a few others. I lowered it, andMerediths earlier words came back to me. "Thats not fair!"He didnt seem concerned. "Youre superior to the others. Making you do easy things wouldnthave been fair."Id faced a lot of ridiculous things in my life, but this was pretty out there. "So they had me dothat crazy bridge stunt instead? And if they were surprised I cut it, then what the hell else didthey expect me to do? How else was I supposed to survive that?""Hmm." He stroked his chin absentmindedly. "I honestly dont think they knew.""Oh, for Gods sake. This is unbelievable."
  • "Why are you so mad? You passed.""Because they put me in a situation they didnt even know how to get out of." I gave him asuspicious look. "And how do you even know about this? This is all guardian business."An expression I didnt like at all came over his face. "Ah, well, I was with your mother last nightand--""Whoa, okay. Just stop," I interrupted. "I do not want to hear what you and my mother weredoing last night. I think thatd be worse than the bridge."He grinned. "Both are in the past, so no need to worry now. Enjoy your success.""Ill try. Just dont do me any more favors with Adrian, okay? I mean, Im glad you came tosupport me, but thats more than enough."Abe gave me a canny look, reminding me that underneath that swagger he was indeed a shrewdand dangerous man. "You were more than happy to have me do you a favor after your returnfrom Russia."I grimaced. He had a point, seeing as he had managed to get a message into a high-securityprison. Even if it hadnt led to anything, he still got points."Okay," I admitted. "That was pretty amazing. And Im grateful. I still dont know how youpulled that off." Suddenly, like a dream you recall a day later, I remembered the thought Id hadjust before my trials. I lowered my voice. "You didnt actually go there, did you?"
  • He snorted. "Of course not. I wouldnt set foot in that place. I simply worked my network.""Where is that place?" I asked, hoping I sounded bland.He wasnt fooled. "Why do you want to know?""Because Im curious! Convicted criminals always disappear without a trace. Im a guardian now,and I dont even know anything about our own prison system. Is there just one prison? Are therelots?"Abe didnt answer right away. He was studying me carefully. In his business, he suspectedeveryone of ulterior motives. As his daughter, I was probably doubly suspect. It was in the genes.He must have underestimated my potential for insanity because he said at last, "Theres morethan one. Victors in one of the worst. Its called Tarasov.""Where is it?""Right now?" He considered. "In Alaska, I think.""What do you mean, right now?""It moves throughout the year. Right now its in Alaska. Later, itll be in Argentina." He gave mea sly smile, apparently wondering how astute I was. "Can you guess why?""No, I--wait. Sunlight." It made perfect sense. "Alaskas got almost nonstop daylight this time ofyear--but nonstop night in the winter."
  • I think he was prouder of my realization than of my trials. "Any prisoners trying to escape wouldhave a hard time." In full sun, no Moroi fugitive would get very far. "Not that anyone can escapethrough that level of security anyway." I tried to ignore how foreboding that sounded."Seems like theyd put it pretty far north in Alaska then," I said, hoping to worm out the actuallocation indirectly. "You get more light that way."He chuckled. "Even I cant tell you that. Thats information the guardians keep close, buried intheir headquarters."I froze. Headquarters...Abe, despite being usually observant, didnt notice my reaction. His eyes were watchingsomething across the room. "Is that Renee Szelsky? My, my... shes grown lovely over theyears."I grudgingly waved him away, largely because I wanted to chase this new plan in my mind--andbecause Renee wasnt anyone I knew very well, which made him hitting on her less appalling."Well, dont let me stop you. Go lure more women into your web."Abe didnt need much prodding. Alone, I let my brain spin, wondering if my developing schemehad any chance of success. His words had sparked a new plan in my mind. It wasnt much crazierthan most of my others. Across the room, I met Lissas jade eyes again. With Christian out ofsight, her mood had improved. She was enjoying herself and was excited about the adventuresahead of us, now that we were free and out in the world. My mind flashed back to the anxietiesId felt earlier in the day. We might be free now, but reality would catch up with us soon. Theclock was ticking. Dimitri was waiting, watching. I wondered briefly if Id still get his weeklyletters, now that Id be leaving the school.
  • I smiled at her, feeling kind of bad that Id be ruining her mood when I told her we might nowhave a very real chance of busting out Victor Dashkov. Chapter ThreeTHE NEXT COUPLE OF DAYS were strange. The other novices and I might have had theflashiest graduation, but we werent the only ones finishing our education at St. Vladimirs. TheMoroi had their own commencement ceremony, and campus grew packed with visitors. Then,almost as quickly as they came, parents disappeared--taking their sons and daughters with them.Royal Moroi left to spend their summers with their parents at luxury estates--many in theSouthern Hemisphere, where the days were shorter this time of year. "Ordinary" Moroi left withtheir parents too, off to more modest homes, possibly getting summer jobs before college.And of course, with school wrapping up for the summer, all the other students left too. Somewith no family to go home to, usually dhampirs, stayed year-round, taking special electives, butthey were the minority. Campus grew emptier each day as my classmates and I waited for theday when wed be taken to the Royal Court. We made our farewells to others, Moroi moving onor younger dhampirs whod soon be following in our footsteps.One person I was sad to part with was Jill. I happened to catch her as I was walking towardLissas dorm the day before my Court trip. There was a woman with Jill, presumably her mother,and both were carrying boxes. Jills face lit up when she saw me."Hey Rose! I said goodbye to everyone else but couldnt find you," she said excitedly.I smiled. "Well, Im glad you caught me."I couldnt tell her that Id been saying goodbye too. Id spent my last day at St. Vladimirs walkingall the familiar sites, starting with the elementary campus where Lissa and I had first met inkindergarten. Id explored the halls and corners of my dorms, walked past favorite classrooms,and even visited the chapel. Id also passed a lot of time in areas filled with bittersweetmemories, like the training areas where Id first gotten to know Dimitri. The track where he usedto make me run laps.The cabin where wed finally given in to each other. It had been one of themost amazing nights of my life, and thinking about it always brought me both joy and pain.
  • Jill didnt need to be burdened with any of that, though. I turned toward her mother and started tooffer my hand until I realized she couldnt shake it while maneuvering the box. "Im RoseHathaway. Here, let me carry that."I took it before she could protest because I was certain she would. "Thank you," she said,pleasantly surprised. I fell in step with them as they began walking again. "Im Emily Mastrano.Jills told me a lot about you.""Oh yeah?" I asked, giving Jill a teasing smile."Not that much. Just how I hang out with you sometimes." There was a slight warning in Jillsgreen eyes, and it occurred to me that Emily probably didnt know her daughter practicedforbidden forms of Strigoi-killing magic in her free time."We like having Jill around," I said, not blowing her cover. "And one of these days, were goingto teach her to tame that hair."Emily laughed. "Ive been trying for almost fifteen years. Good luck."Jills mother was stunning. The two didnt resemble each other much, at least not superficially.Emilys lustrous hair was straight and black, her eyes deep blue and long-lashed. She moved witha willowy grace, very different from Jills always self-conscious walk. Yet, I could see the sharedgenes here and there, the heart-shaped faces and lip shapes. Jill was still young, and as she grewinto her features, shed likely be a heartbreaker herself someday--something she was probablyoblivious to right now. Hopefully her self-confidence would grow."Wheres home for you guys?" I asked."Detroit," said Jill, making a face.
  • "Its not that bad," laughed her mom."There are no mountains. Just highways.""Im part of a ballet company there," Emily explained. "So we stay where we can pay the bills." Ithink I was more surprised that people went to the ballet in Detroit than that Emily was aballerina. It made sense, watching her, and really, with their tall and slim builds, Moroi wereideal dancers as far as humans were concerned."Hey, its a big city," I told Jill. "Enjoy the excitement while you can before you come back tothe boring middle of nowhere." Of course, illicit combat training and Strigoi attacks were hardlyboring, but I wanted to make Jill feel better. "And it wont be that long." Moroi summervacations were barely two months. Parents were eager to return their children to the safety of theAcademy."I guess," said Jill, not sounding convinced. We reached their car, and I loaded the boxes into thetrunk."Ill e-mail you when I can," I promised. "And I bet Christian will too. Maybe I can even talkAdrian into it."Jill brightened, and I was happy to see her return to her normal overexcited self. "Really? Thatwould be great. I want to hear everything that goes on at Court. Youll probably get to do all sortsof cool things with Lissa and Adrian, and I bet Christian will find out all sorts of things... aboutthings."Emily didnt seem to notice Jills lame editing attempt and instead fixed me with a pretty smile."Thanks for your help, Rose. It was great to meet you."
  • "You too--umph!"Jill had thrown herself into me with a hug. "Good luck with everything," she said. "Youre solucky--youre going to have such a great life now!"I returned the hug, unable to explain how jealous of her I was. Her life was still safe andinnocent. She might resent spending a summer in Detroit, but the stay would be brief, and soonshed be back in the familiar and easy world of St. Vladimirs. She wouldnt be setting out intothe unknown and its dangers.It was only after she and her mother had driven off that I could bring myself to respond to hercomment. "I hope so," I murmured, thinking about what was to come. "I hope so."My classmates and select Moroi flew out early the next day, leaving the rocky mountains ofMontana behind for the rolling hills of Pennsylvania. The Royal Court was a lot like Iremembered, with the same imposing, ancient feel that St. Vladimirs tried to impart with itstowering buildings and intricate stone architecture. But the school also seemed to want to showoff a wise, studious air, whereas the Court was more ostentatious. It was like the buildingsthemselves tried to make sure we all knew that this was the seat of power and royalty among theMoroi. The Royal Court wanted us to be amazed and maybe a little cowed.And even though Id been here before, I was still impressed. The doors and windows of the tanstone buildings were embossed and framed in pristine golden decorations. They were a far cryfrom the brightness Id seen in Russia, but I realized now that the Courts designers had modeledthese buildings off the old European ones--the fortresses and palaces of Saint Petersburg. St.Vladimirs had benches and paths in the quads and courtyards, but the Court went a step further.Fountains and elaborate statues of past rulers adorned the lawns, exquisite marble works that hadpreviously been hidden in snow. Now, in the full throes of summer, they were bright and ondisplay. And everywhere, everywhere were flowers on trees, bushes, paths--it was dazzling.It made sense that new grads would visit the guardians central administration, but it occurred tome that there was another reason they brought new guardians here in the summer. They wantedmy classmates and me to see all of this, to be overwhelmed and appreciative of the glory for
  • which we were fighting. Looking at the faces of the new graduates, I knew the tactic wasworking. Most had never been here before.Lissa and Adrian had been on my flight, and the three of us clustered together as we walked withthe group. It was as warm as it had been in Montana, but the humidity here was much thicker. Iwas sweating after only a little light walking."You did bring a dress this time, right?" asked Adrian."Of course," I said. "Theyve got some fancy things they want us to go to, aside from the mainreception. Although, they might give me my black-and-white for that."He shook his head, and I noticed his hand start to move toward his pocket before hesitating andpulling back. He might have been making progress in quitting smoking, but I was pretty sure thesubconscious urge to automatically reach for a pack when outdoors was hard to get rid of soquickly."I mean for tonight. For dinner."I glanced questioningly at Lissa. Her schedule at Court always had assorted functions throwninto it that "average people" didnt attend. With my new and uncertain status, I wasnt sure if Idbe going with her. I sensed her puzzlement through the bond and could tell that she didnt have aclue about any special dinner plans."What dinner?" I asked."The one I set up with my family."
  • "The one you--" I came to an abrupt halt and stared wide-eyed, not liking the smirk on his faceone bit. "Adrian!" A few of the new grads gave me curious looks and continued walking aroundus."Come on, weve been going out a couple months. Meeting parents is part of the dating ritual.Ive met your mom. I even met your scary-ass dad. Now its your turn. I guarantee none of myfamilys gonna make the kind of suggestions your dad did."Id actually kind of met Adrians dad before. Or, well, Id seen him at a party. I doubted he hadany idea who I was--my crazy reputation aside. I knew almost nothing about Adrians mother. Heactually spoke very little about his family members--well, most of them."Just your parents?" I asked warily. "Any other family I should know about?""Well..." Adrians hand twitched again. I think this time he wanted a cigarette as some sort ofprotection from the warning note in my voice. Lissa, I observed, seemed highly amused by all ofthis. "My favorite great-aunt might stop by.""Tatiana?" I exclaimed. For the hundredth time, I wondered how I had lucked out with a guyrelated to the leader of the entire Moroi world. "She hates me! You know what happened the lasttime we talked." Her Royal Majesty had laid into me, yelling about how I was too trashy to hookup with her nephew and how she had great "plans" for him and Lissa."I think shes come around.""Oh, come on.""No, really." He almost looked like he was telling the truth. "I talked to my mom the other day,and... I dont know. Aunt Tatiana doesnt seem to hate you as much."
  • I frowned, and the three of us began to walk again. "Maybe she admires your recent vigilantework," mused Lissa."Maybe," I said. But I didnt really believe it. If anything, me going rogue should have made memore despicable in the queens eyes.I felt kind of betrayed that Adrian had sprung this dinner on me, but there was nothing to be doneabout it now. The only bright side was that I had the impression he was teasing me about his auntstopping by. I told him Id go, and my decision put him in a good enough mood that he didnt asktoo many questions when Lissa and I said we were going to do "our own thing" that afternoon.My classmates were all getting a tour of the Court and its grounds as part of their indoctrination,but Id seen it all before and was able to wiggle out of it. Lissa and I dropped our belongings offin our rooms and then set out to the far side of the Court, where the not-so-royal people lived."Are you going to tell me yet what this other part of your plan is?" asked Lissa.Ever since Abe had explained about Victors prison, Id been making another mental list of theproblems wed have breaking into it. Mainly, there were two, which was one less than Id initiallyhad since talking to Abe. Not that things were really much easier. First, we had no clue where inAlaska this place was. Second, we didnt know what the prisons defenses and layout were like.We had no idea what we had to bust through.Yet, something told me all of these answers could be found in one source, which meant I reallyonly had one immediate problem: how to reach that source. Fortunately, I knew someone whomight be able to help get us there."Were going to see Mia," I told her.Mia Rinaldi was a former Moroi classmate of ours--a former enemy, actually. She was also theposter child for total personality makeovers. Shed gone from a scheming bitch who was willingto crush--and sleep with--anyone in her quest for popularity to a down-to-earth, confident girleager to learn to defend herself and others from Strigoi. She lived here at Court with her father.
  • "You think Mia knows how to break into a prison?""Mias good, but I dont think shes that good. She can probably help us get intel, though."Lissa groaned. "I cant believe you just used the word intel. This really is turning into a spymovie." She spoke flippantly, but I could feel the worry within her. The light tone was maskingher fear, the unease she still felt about freeing Victor, despite her promise to me.Those non-royals who worked and did ordinary things at Court lived in apartments far from thequeens quarters and receiving hall. Id gotten Mias address in advance, and we set out across theperfectly manicured grounds, grumbling to each other along the way about the hot day. Wefound her at home, casually dressed in jeans and a T-shirt with a Popsicle in her hand. Her eyeswidened when she saw us outside her door."Well, Ill be damned," she said.I laughed. It was the kind of response Id give. "Nice to see you too. Can we come in?""Of course." She stepped aside. "You want a Popsicle?"Did I ever. I took a grape one and sat with her and Lissa in the small living room. The place wasa far cry from the opulence of royal guest housing, but it was cozy and clean and undoubtedlywell loved by Mia and her father."I knew the grads were coming," Mia said, brushing blond curls out of her face. "But I wasntsure if you were with them or not. Did you even graduate?"
  • "I did," I said. "Got the promise mark and everything." I lifted my hair so she could see thebandage."Im surprised they let you back in after you took off on your killing spree. Or did you get extracredit for that?"Apparently, Mia had heard the same tall tale about my adventures that everyone else had. Thatwas fine with me. I didnt want to talk about the truth. I didnt want to talk about Dimitri."Do you think anyone could stop Rose from doing what she wants?" asked Lissa with a smile.She was trying to keep us from getting into too much detail about my past whereabouts, forwhich I was grateful.Mia laughed and crunched on a big chunk of lime ice. It was a wonder she didnt get brain freeze."True." Her smile faded as she swallowed the bite. Her blue eyes, always shrewd, studied me insilence for a few moments. "And Rose wants something now.""Hey, were just happy to see you," I said."I believe you. But I also believe youve got an ulterior motive."Lissas smile grew. She was amused by me being caught in my spy game. "What makes you saythat? Can you read Rose that well or do you just always assume shes got an ulterior motive?"Now Mia smiled again. "Both." She scooted forward on the couch, fixing me with a serious look.When had she grown so perceptive? "Okay. No point in wasting time. What do you need myhelp with?"I sighed, busted. "I need to get inside the guardians main security office."
  • Beside me, Lissa made a sort of strangled noise. I felt kind of bad for her. While she couldconceal her thoughts from me on occasion, there wasnt much she did or said that came as a truesurprise. Me? I continually blindsided her. She had no clue what was coming half the time, buthonestly, if we were planning on springing a renowned criminal out of prison, then breaking intoa security office shouldnt have been that big of a shock."Wow," said Mia. "You dont waste time with the little stuff." Her grin twitched a bit. "Ofcourse, you wouldnt come to me with little stuff. You could do that yourself.""Can you get me--us--in there?" I asked. "Youre friendly with some of the guardians here... andyour dad has access to a lot of places...." I didnt know Mr. Rinaldis exact job, but I thought itwas maintenance-related."What are you looking for?" she asked. She held up a hand when I opened my mouth to protest."No, no. I dont need details. Just a general idea so I can figure this out. I know youre not goingthere just to tour the place.""I need some records," I explained.Her eyebrows rose. "Personnel? Trying to get yourself a job?""I--no." Huh. That wasnt a bad idea, considering my precarious position with being assigned toLissa. But no.One issue at a time. "I need some records about outside security at other places--schools, royal homes, prisons." I tried to keep my expression casual as I mentioned that last one.Mia was on board with some crazy things, but even she had her limits. "I figured they must keepthat stuff there?""They do," she said. "But most of its electronic. And no offense, but that might even be beyondyour abilities. Even if we could get to one of their computers, everythings password protected.
  • And if they walk away, they lock the computers. Im guessing you havent become a hacker sincethe last time I saw you."No, certainly not. And unlike the heroes of those spy movies Lissa teased me about, I had notech-savvy friends who could even come close to breaking that kind of encryption and security.Damn. I stared glumly at my feet, wondering if I had any chance at all of getting moreinformation out of Abe."But," said Mia, "if the information you need isnt too current, they might still have papercopies."I jerked my head up. "Where?""Theyve got mass storage rooms, tucked away in one of the basements. Files and files.Stillunder lock and key--but probably easier to get to than fighting the computers. Again, depends onwhat you need. How old it is."Abe had given me the impression that Tarasov Prison had been around for a while. Surely therewas a record of it in these archives. I didnt doubt the guardians had gone digital a while ago,which meant we might not find up-to-the-minute details on the places security, but Id settle for ablueprint."It might be what we need. Can you get us in?"Mia was quiet for several seconds, and I could see her mind whirring. "Possibly." She glanced atLissa. "Can you still compel people into being your slaves?"Lissa grimaced. "I dont like to think of it like that, but yeah, I can." It was another of spiritsperks.
  • Mia considered a few moments more and then gave a quick nod. "Okay. Come back around two,and well see what we can do."Two in the afternoon for the rest of the world meant the middle of the night for Moroi, who ranon a nocturnal schedule. Being out in broad daylight didnt feel particularly sneaky, but I had tofigure Mias planning here was based on the fact that there would also be fewer people aroundthat time of day.I was trying to decide if we should socialize more or head out when a knock interrupted mythoughts. Mia flinched and suddenly looked uncomfortable. She rose to get the door, and afamiliar voice drifted down the hall toward us."Sorry Im early, but I--"Christian stepped into the living room. He abruptly shut up when he saw Lissa and me. Everyoneseemed frozen, so it looked like it was up to me to pretend like this wasnt a horribly awkwardsituation."Hey, Christian," I said cheerfully. "Hows it going?"His eyes were on Lissa, and it took him a moment to drag them to me. "Fine." He glanced atMia. "I can come back.... "Lissa hastily stood up. "No," she said, voice cool and princesslike. "Rose and I have to goanyway.""Yeah," I agreed, following her lead. "We have... stuff... to do. And we dont want to interruptyour..." Hell, I had no idea what they were going to do. Wasnt sure I wanted to.
  • Mia had found her voice. "Christian wanted to see some of the moves Ive been practicing withthe campus guardians.""Cool." I kept the smile on my face as Lissa and I moved toward the door. She stepped as fararound Christian as she could. "Jill will be jealous."And not just Jill. After another round of goodbyes, Lissa and I left and set back off across thegrounds. I could feel the anger and jealousy radiating through her bond."Its only their fight club, Liss," I said, having no need for her side of the conversation."Nothings going on. Theyre going to talk punches and kicking and other boring stuff." Well,actually that stuff was pretty sweet, but I wasnt about to glorify Christian and Mia hanging out."Maybe now nothings going on," she growled, staring stonily ahead. "But who knows whatcould happen? They spend time together, practice some physical moves, one thing leads toanother--""Thats ridiculous," I said. "That kind of stuff isnt romantic at all." Another lie, seeing as thatwas exactly how my relationship with Dimitri had begun. Again, best not to mention that."Besides, Christian cant be involved with every girl he hangs out with. Mia, Jill--no offense, buthes not really that much of a ladies man.""Hes really good-looking," she argued, those dark feelings still seething within her."Yeah," I conceded, keeping my eyes carefully on the pathway. "But it takes more than that. Andbesides, I thought you didnt care what he did.""I dont," she agreed, not even convincing herself, let alone me. "Not at all."
  • My attempts to distract her proved pretty useless for the rest of the day. Tashas words came backto me: Why havent you fixed this? Because Lissa and Christian were being too damnedunreasonable, both caught up in their own pissed-off feelings--which were kind of pissing me offin return. Christian would have been pretty helpful in my illicit escapades, but I had to keep mydistance for Lissas sake.I finally left her to her bad mood when dinner came around. Compared to her romantic situation,my relationship with a semi-spoiled royal playboy from a disapproving family seemed downrightoptimistic. What a sad and scary world this was becoming. I assured Lissa Id head straight backafter dinner and that wed go see Mia together. The mention of Mia didnt make Lissa happy, butthe thought of a potential break-in did distract her momentarily from Christian.The dress I had for dinner was maroon, made of light, gauzy material that was great for summerweather. The neckline was decent, and little cap sleeves gave it a classy edge. With my hair in alow ponytail that did a decent job of hiding the healing tattoo, I almost looked like a respectablegirlfriend--which only went to show how deceptive appearances were, seeing as I was part of acrazy scheme to bring my last boyfriend back from the dead.Adrian surveyed me from head to toe when I arrived at his parents town house. They kept apermanent residence here at the Court. The small smile on his face told me he liked what he saw."You approve?" I asked, spinning around.He slipped an arm around my waist. "Unfortunately, yes. I was hoping youd show up insomething a lot sluttier. Something that would scandalize my parents.""Sometimes its like you dont even care about me as a person," I observed as we walked inside."Its like youre just using me for shock value.""Its both, little dhampir. I care about you, and Im using you for shock value."
  • I hid a smile as the Ivashkovs housekeeper led us toward the dining room. The Court actuallyhad restaurants and cafes tucked away within its buildings, but royals like Adrians parents wouldconsider it classier to have a fancy dinner in their home. Me, I would have preferred being out inpublic. More escape options."You must be Rose."My assessment of the exits was interrupted when a very tall, very elegant Moroi woman cameinto the room. She wore a long, dark green satin dress that immediately made me feel out ofplace and that perfectly matched the color of her--and Adrians--eyes. Her dark hair was pulledinto a bun, and she smiled down at me with genuine warmth as she took my hand."Im Daniella Ivashkov," she said. "Its very nice to meet you at last."Was it really? My hand automatically shook hers in return. "Nice to meet you too, LadyIvashkov.""Call me Daniella, please." She turned to Adrian and tsked as she straightened the collar of hisbutton-up shirt. "Honestly, darling," she said. "Do you even look in a mirror before you walk outthe door? Your hairs a mess."He dodged her as she reached toward his head. "Are you kidding? I spent hours in front of themirror to make it look this way."She gave a tormented sigh. "Some days I cant decide if Im lucky or not to have no otherchildren." Behind her, quiet servants were setting food out on the table. Steam rose up from theplatters, and my stomach rumbled. I hoped no one else heard. Daniella glanced off down the hallbeyond her. "Nathan, will you hurry up? The foods getting cold."
  • A few moments later, heavy footsteps sounded on the ornate wood floor, and Nathan Ivashkovswept into the room. Like his wife, he was dressed formally, the blue satin of his tie gleamingnext to the starkness of his heavy black suit coat. I was glad they had air-conditioning in here, orhed have been melting in that heavy fabric. The feature on him that stood out the most was whatI remembered from before: a distinctly silver head of hair and mustache. I wondered if Adrianshair would look like that when he was older. Nah, Id never find out. Adrian would probably dyehis hair at the first sign of gray--or silver.Adrians father might be exactly as I remembered, but it was clear he had no clue who I was. Infact, he seemed genuinely startled to see me."This is Adrians, ah, friend, Rose Hathaway," said Daniella gently. "You remember--he saidhed bring her tonight.""Its nice to meet you, Lord Ivashkov."Unlike his wife, he didnt offer to put us on a first-name basis, which relieved me a little. TheStrigoi who had forcefully turned Dimitri had been named Nathan too, and it wasnt a name Iwanted to speak aloud. Adrians father looked me over, but it wasnt with the appreciation Adrianhad shown earlier. It was more like I was an oddity. "Oh. The dhampir girl."He wasnt rude exactly, just disinterested. I mean, it wasnt like he called me a blood whore oranything. We all sat down to eat, and although Adrian kept his typical devil-may-care smile onhis face, I again got the vibe that he really, really wanted a cigarette. Probably hard liquor, too.Being around his parents was not something he enjoyed. When one of the servants poured us allwine, Adrian looked immensely relieved and didnt hold back. I shot him a cautioning look thathe ignored.Nathan managed to rapidly devour his balsamic-glazed pork medallions while still lookingelegant and proper. "So," he said, attention focused on Adrian, "now that Vasilisas graduated,what are you going to do with yourself? You arent going to keep slumming with high schoolstudents, are you? Theres no point in you being there anymore."
  • "I dont know," said Adrian lazily. He shook his head, further tousling his carefully mussed hair."I kind of like hanging out with them. They think Im funnier than I really am.""Unsurprising," his father replied. "You arent funny at all. Its time you do somethingproductive. If you arent going to go back to college, you should at least start sitting in on someof the family business meetings. Tatiana spoils you, but you could learn a lot from Rufus."I knew enough about royal politics to recognize the name. The oldest member of each familywas usually its "prince" or "princess" and held a Royal Council position--and was eligible tobecome king or queen. When Tatiana had taken the crown, Rufus had become prince of theIvashkov family since he was the next oldest."True," said Adrian deadpan. He wasnt eating so much as pushing his food around. "Id reallylike to know how he keeps his two mistresses a secret from his wife.""Adrian!" snapped Daniella, a flush spilling over her pale cheeks. "Dont say things like that atour dinner table--and certainly not in front of a guest."Nathan seemed to notice me again and gave a dismissive shrug. "She doesnt matter." I bit my lipon that, repressing the urge to see if I could throw my china plate Frisbee style and hit him in thehead. I decided against it. Not only would it ruin dinner, but the plate probably wouldnt get thelift I needed. Nathan turned his scowl back to Adrian. "But you do. Im not going to have yousitting around doing nothing--and using our money to fund it."Something told me I should stay out of this, but I couldnt stand to see Adrian dressed down byhis annoying father. Adrian did sit around and waste money, but Nathan didnt have the right tomake fun of him for it. I mean, sure, I did all the time. But that was different."Maybe you could go to Lehigh with Lissa," I offered. "Keep studying spirit with her and then...do whatever else you were doing the last time you were in college...."
  • "Drinking and skipping classes," said Nathan."Art," said Daniella. "Adrian took art classes.""Really?" I asked, turning to him in surprise. Somehow, I could imagine him as an artistic type.It fit his erratic personality. "Then this would be perfect. You could pick it up again."He shrugged and finished his second glass of wine. "I dont know. This college would probablyhave the same problem the last one did."I frowned. "Whats that?""Homework.""Adrian," growled his father."Its okay," said Adrian breezily. He rested his arm casually on the table. "I dont really need ajob or extra money. After Rose and I get married, the kids and Ill just live off of her guardianpaycheck."We all froze, even me. I knew perfectly well that he was joking. I mean, even if he harboredfantasies of marriage and kids (and I was pretty sure he didnt), the meager salary a guardianmade would never be enough to keep him in the luxurious life he required.Adrians father, however, clearly did not think he was joking. Daniella seemed undecided. Me, Iwas just uncomfortable. It was a very, very bad topic to bring up at a dinner like this, and I
  • couldnt believe Adrian had gone there. I didnt even think the wine was to blame. Adrian justliked tormenting his father that much.The awful silence grew thicker and thicker. My gut instinct to fill conversation voids was raging,but something told me to stay quiet. The tension increased. When the doorbell rang, all four of usnearly jumped out of our chairs.The housekeeper, Torrie, scurried off to answer it, and I breathed a mental sigh of relief. Anunexpected visitor would help ease the tension.Or maybe not.Torrie cleared her throat when she returned, clearly flustered as she looked from Daniella toNathan. "Her Royal Majesty Queen Tatiana is here."No. Way.All three Ivashkovs stood up abruptly, and a half second later, I joined them. I hadnt believedAdrian earlier when he said Tatiana might come. From his face, he seemed pretty surprised nowtoo. But sure enough, there she was. She swept into the room, elegant in what must have beenbusiness casual for her: tailored black slacks and jacket with a red silk and lace blouseunderneath. Little jeweled barrettes gleamed in her dark hair, and those imperious eyes peereddown at us all as we offered hasty bows. Even her own family followed formalities."Aunt Tatiana," said Nathan, forcing what looked like a smile onto his face. I dont think he did itvery often. "Wont you join us for dinner?"She waved a hand dismissively. "No, no. I cant stay. Im on my way to meet with Priscilla butthought Id stop by when I heard Adrian had returned." Her gaze fell on him. "I cant believeyouve been here all day and didnt come visit." Her voice was cool, but I swear there was an
  • amused twinkle in her eyes. It was scary. She wasnt someone I thought of as warm and fuzzy.The whole experience of seeing her outside of one of her ceremonial rooms was totally unreal.Adrian grinned at her. He was clearly the most comfortable person in the room right now. Forreasons I never understood, Tatiana loved and spoiled Adrian. That wasnt to say that she didntlove her other family members; it was just clear that he was her favorite. It had always surprisedme, considering what a scoundrel he was sometimes."Aw, I figured you had more important things to do than see me," he told her. "Besides, I quitsmoking, so now we wont be able to go sneak cigarettes out behind the throne room together.""Adrian!" chastised Nathan, turning bright red. It occurred to me then that I could have based adrinking game around how many times he exclaimed his sons name disapprovingly. "Auntie, Imsor--"Tatiana held up a hand again. "Oh, be silent, Nathan. No one wants to hear it." I almost choked.Being in the same room with the queen was horrid, but it was almost worth it to see her verballybitch-slap Lord Ivashkov. She turned back to Adrian, face thawing. "Youve finally quit? Itsabout time. I suppose this is your doing?"It took me a moment to realize she was speaking to me. Until that point, Id kind of hoped shemight not have even noticed me. It seemed the only explanation for her not screaming at them toremove the rebellious little blood whore. It was shocking. Her voice wasnt accusatory, either. Itwas... impressed."W-well, it wasnt me, Your Majesty," I said. My meekness was a far cry from my behavior atour last meeting. "Adrian was the one who had the, uh, determination to do it."So help me, Tatiana chuckled. "Very diplomatic. They should assign you to a politician."
  • Nathan didnt like the attention on me. I wasnt sure I did either, semi-pleasant or not. "Are youand Priscilla doing business tonight? Or just having a friendly dinner?"Tatiana dragged her gaze from me. "Both. Theres been some inter-family squabbling going on.Not publicly, but its getting out. People are making noise about security. Some are ready to starttraining up right now. Others are wondering if guardians can go without sleep." She rolled hereyes. "And those are the tamest of the suggestions."No question about it. This visit had gotten a lot more interesting."I hope youre going to shut those would-be militants up," growled Nathan. "Us fightingalongside guardians is absurd.""Whats absurd," said Tatiana, "is having strife among the royal classes. Thats what I want toshut up." Her tone grew lofty, very queenlike. "Were the leaders among the Moroi. We have toset an example. We need to be unified to survive."I studied her curiously. What did that mean? She hadnt agreed or disagreed with Nathans stanceon Moroi fighting. Shed only mentioned establishing peace among her people. But how? Washer method to encourage the new motion or squash it? Security was a huge concern for everyoneafter the attack, and it fell on her to figure it out."Sounds pretty hard to me," said Adrian, playing oblivious to the seriousness of the matter. "Ifyou still want a cigarette afterward, Ill make an exception.""Ill settle for you coming to make a proper visit tomorrow," she said dryly. "Leave the cigarettesat home." She glanced at his empty wineglass. "And other things." A flash of steely resolvecrossed her gaze, and even though it melted as quickly as it had come, I felt almost relieved.There was the icy Tatiana I knew.
  • He saluted. "Noted."Tatiana gave the rest of us brief glances. "Have a good evening," was her only farewell. Webowed again, and then she headed back toward the front door. As she did, I heard scuffling andmurmured voices. Shed been traveling with a retinue, I realized, and had left them all in thefoyer while she came to say hello to Adrian.Dinner was quiet after that. Tatianas visit had kind of left us all astonished. At least it meant Ididnt have to hear Adrian and his father bicker anymore. Daniella mostly maintained what littleconversation there was, attempting to inquire about my interests, and I realized she hadnt said aword during Tatianas brief visit. Daniella had married into the Ivashkovs, and I wondered if shefound the queen intimidating.When the time came for us to leave, Daniella was all smiles while Nathan retired to his study."You need to come by more often," she told Adrian, smoothing his hair in spite of his protests."And youre welcome anytime, Rose.""Thank you," I said, dumbfounded. I kept studying her face to see if she was lying, but I didntthink she was. It made no sense. Moroi didnt approve of long-term relationships with dhampirs.Royal Moroi especially didnt. And royal Moroi related to the queen especially didnt, at least ifpast experience was any indication.Adrian sighed. "Maybe if hes not around. Oh, damn. That reminds me. I left my coat here lasttime--I wanted to get out too fast.""Youve got, like, fifty coats," I remarked."Ask Torrie," said Daniella. "Shell know where it is."
  • Adrian went off to find the housekeeper, leaving me with his mother. I should have made polite,inconsequential small talk, but my curiosity was getting the better of me."Dinner was really great," I told her honestly. "And I hope you wont take this the wrong way...but I mean... well, you seem okay with Adrian and me dating."She nodded serenely. "I am.""And..." Well, it had to be said. "Tat--Queen Tatiana kind of seemed okay with it too.""She is."I made sure my jaw didnt drop to the floor. "But... I mean, the last time I talked to her, she wasreally mad. She kept telling me over and over how shed never allow us to be together in thefuture or get married or anything like that." I cringed, recalling Adrians joke. "I figured youdfeel the same. Lord Ivashkov does. You cant really want your son to be with a dhampir forever."Daniellas smile was kind but wry. "Do you plan on being with him forever? Do you plan onmarrying him and settling down?"The question totally caught me off guard. "I... no... I mean, no offense to Adrian. I just never--""Planned on settling down at all?" She nodded wisely. "Thats what I thought. Believe me, Iknow Adrian wasnt serious earlier. Everyones jumping to conclusions that havent evenhappened. Ive heard of you, Rose--everyone has. And I admire you. And based on what Ivelearned, Im guessing you arent the type who would quit being a guardian to be a housewife.""Youre right," I admitted.
  • "Then I dont see the problem. Youre both young. Youre entitled to have fun and do what youwant now, but I--you and I--know that even if you see Adrian off and on for the rest of your life,you arent going to get married or settle down. And it has nothing to do with what Nathan oranyone says. Its the way of the world. Its the kind of person you are. I can see it in your eyes.Tatianas realized it too, and thats why she eased up. You need to be out there fighting, and thatswhat youll do. At least if you truly intend to be a guardian.""I do." I was staring at her in wonder. Her attitude was amazing. She was the first royal Id metwho hadnt immediately freaked out and gone crazy over the idea of a Moroi and dhampir match.If other people shared her view, it would make a lot of others lives easier. And she was right. Itdidnt matter what Nathan thought. It wouldnt have even mattered if Dimitri had been around.The bottom line was that Adrian and I wouldnt be together for the rest of our lives because Idalways be on guardian duty, not lounging around like he did. Realizing that freed things up... yetit made me a little sad too.Behind her, I could see Adrian approaching down the hall. Daniella leaned forward, pitching hervoice low for me. There was a wistful note to her words when she spoke, the tone of a concernedmother. "But Rose? While Im fine with you two dating and being happy, please try not to breakhis heart too much when the time comes." Chapter FourI DECIDED ITD BE BEST not to mention my conversation with Adrians mother to him. Ididnt need psychic powers to sense his mixed mood as we walked back to guest housing. Hisfather had annoyed him, but his mothers seeming acceptance had cheered him up. I didnt wantto damage that by letting Adrian know she was only okay with our dating because she figured itwas a temporary, fun thing."So youre going off with Lissa?" he asked when we reached my room."Yup, sorry. You know--girl stuff." And by girl stuff, I meant breaking and entering.
  • Adrian seemed a little disappointed, but I knew he didnt begrudge our friendship. He gave me asmall smile and wrapped his arms around my waist, leaning down to kiss me. Our lips met, andthat warmth that always surprised me spread through me. After a few sweet moments, we brokeapart, but the look in his eyes said it wasnt easy for him."See you later," I said. He gave me one more quick kiss and then headed off to his own room.I immediately sought out Lissa, who was hanging out in her own room. She was staring intentlyat a silver spoon, and through our bond, I could sense her intent. She was attempting to infuse itwith spirits compulsion, so that whoever held it would cheer up. I wondered if she intended it forherself or was just randomly experimenting. I didnt probe her mind to find out."A spoon?" I asked with amusement.She shrugged and set it down. "Hey, its not easy to keep getting a hold of silver. I have to takewhat I can get.""Well, itd make for happy dinner parties."She smiled and put her feet upon the ebony coffee table that sat in the middle of her little suitesliving room. Each time I saw it, I couldnt help but be reminded of the glossy black furniture thathad been in my own prison suite back in Russia. I had fought Dimitri with a stake made from achairs leg of similar style."Speaking of which... how was your dinner party?""Not as bad as I thought," I admitted. "I never realized what an asshole Adrians dad was, though.His mom was actually pretty cool. She didnt have a problem with us dating."
  • "Yeah, Ive met her. She is nice... though I never thought she was nice enough to be okay withscandalous dating. I dont suppose Her Royal Majesty showed up?" Lissa was joking, so myresponse floored her."She did, and... it wasnt awful.""What? Did you say wasnt?""I know, I know. It was so crazy. It was this really quick visit to see Adrian, and she acted likeme being there was no big deal." I didnt bother delving into the politics of Tatianas views onMoroi training for battle. "Of course, who knows what would have happened if she stayed?Maybe she would have turned into her old self. I would have needed a whole set of magicsilverware then--to stop me from pulling a knife on her."Lissa groaned. "Rose, you cannot make those kinds of jokes."I grinned. "I say the things youre too afraid to."This made her smile in return. "Its been a long time since Ive heard that," she said softly. Mytrip to Russia had fractured our friendship--which had ended up showing me just how much itreally meant to me.We spent the rest of the time hanging out, talking about Adrian and other gossip. I was relievedto see shed gotten over her earlier mood about Christian, but as the day progressed, her anxietygrew about our pending mission with Mia."Its going to be okay," I told her when the time came. We were heading back across the Courtgrounds, dressed in comfortable jeans and T-shirts. It was nice to be free of school curfew, butagain, being out in the bright sunlight didnt make me feel very covert. "Thisll be easy."
  • Lissa cut me a look but said nothing. The guardians were the security force in our world, and thiswas their headquarters. Breaking in was going to be anything but easy.Mia looked determined when we reached her, though, and I felt encouraged by her attitude--andthat she was wearing all black. True, it wouldnt do much in sunlight, but it made this all feelmore legitimate. I was dying to know what had happened with Christian, and Lissa was too.Again, it was one of those topics best left unexplained.Mia did, however, explain her plan to us, and I honestly felt it had about a 65 percent chance ofworking. Lissa was uneasy about her role since it involved compulsion, but she was a trooperand agreed to do it. We went over everything in detail a few more times and then set out to thebuilding that housed guardian operations. Id been there once before, when Dimitri had taken meto see Victor in the holding cells adjacent to the guardians HQ. Id never spent much time in themain offices before, and as Mia had predicted, they were lightly staffed this time of the day.When we walked in, we were immediately met by a reception area like youd find in any otheradministrative office. A stern guardian sat at a desk with a computer, filing cabinets and tablesall around him. He probably didnt have much to do at this time of night, but he was still clearlyon high alert. Beyond him was a door, and it held my attention. Mia had explained that it was agateway to all the guardian secrets, to their records and main offices--and surveillance areas thatmonitored high-risk regions of the Court.Stern or not, the guy had a small smile for Mia. "Isnt it a little late for you? You arent here forlessons, are you?"She grinned back. He must have been one of the guardians shed grown friendly with during hertime at Court. "Nah, just up with some friends and wanted to show them around."He arched an eyebrow as he took in me and Lissa. He gave a slight nod of acknowledgment."Princess Dragomir. Guardian Hathaway." Apparently our reputations preceded us. It was thefirst time Id been addressed by my new title. It startled me--and made me feel slightly guiltyabout betraying the group Id just become a member of.
  • "This is Don," explained Mia. "Don, the princess has a favor to ask." She looked meaningfully atLissa.Lissa took a deep breath, and I felt the burnings of compulsion magic through our bond as shefocused her gaze upon him. "Don," she said firmly, "give us the keys and codes to the recordsarchives downstairs. And then make sure the cameras in those areas are turned off."He frowned. "Why would I--" But as her eyes continued to hold his, I could see the compulsionseize him. The lines on his face smoothed into compliance, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Plentyof people were strong enough to resist compulsion--particularly that of ordinary Moroi. Lissaswas much stronger because of spirit, though you never knew if someone might break through."Of course," he said, standing up. He opened a desk drawer and handed Mia a set of keys thatshe promptly gave to me. "The code is 4312578."I committed it to memory, and he beckoned us through the all-powerful door. Beyond it,corridors spread in all directions. He pointed to one on our right. "Down there. Take a left at theend, go downstairs two flights, and its the door on the right."Mia glanced at me to make sure I understood. I nodded, and she turned back to him. "Now makesure the surveillance is off.""Take us there," said Lissa firmly.Don couldnt resist her command, and she and Mia followed him, leaving me on my own. Thispart of the plan was all on me, and I hurried down the hall. The facility might be lightly staffed,but I could still run into someone--and would have no compulsion to help me talk my way out oftrouble.
  • Dons directions were spot-on, but I still wasnt prepared when I punched in the code and enteredthe vault. Rows and rows of filing cabinets stretched down a huge hall. I couldnt see the end ofit. Drawers were stacked five high, and the faint fluorescent lighting and eerie silence gave it alla spooky, almost haunted feel. All the guardians information from before the digital age. Godonly knew how far back these records went. To medieval days in Europe? I suddenly feltdaunted and wondered if I could pull this off.I walked to the first cabinet on my left, relieved to see it was labeled. AA1 it read. Below it wasAA2 and so forth. Oh dear. It was going to take me several cabinets to even get out of the As. Iwas grateful the organization was as simple as alphabetical order, but I now understood whythese cabinets went on forever. I had to go back more than three quarters of the way down theroom to get to the Ts. And it wasnt until I got to the TA27 drawer that I found the file forTarasov Prison.I gasped. The file was thick, filled with all sorts of documents. There were pages on the prisonshistory and its migration patterns, as well as floor plans for each of its locations. I could hardlybelieve it. So much information... but what did I need? What would be useful? The answer camequickly: all of it. I shut the drawer and tucked the folder under my arm. Okay. Time to get out ofhere.I turned around and began heading for the exit at a light jog. Now that I had what I needed, theurgency of escape was pressing on me. I was almost there when I heard a soft click, and the dooropened. I froze as a dhampir I didnt recognize stepped through. He froze as well, clearlyastonished, and I took it as a small blessing that he didnt immediately pin me against the walland start interrogating me."Youre Rose Hathaway," he said. Good lord. Was there anyone who didnt know who I was?I tensed, unsure what to expect now, but spoke as though us meeting here made perfect sense."So it would seem. Who are you?""Mikhail Tanner," he said, still puzzled. "What are you doing here?"
  • "Running an errand," I said breezily. I indicated the file. "The guardian on duty down hereneeded something.""Youre lying," he said. "Im the guardian on archive duty. If someone needed something, theywould have sent me."Oh, shit. Talk about best-laid plans failing. Yet as I stood there, a strange thought came to me.His appearance wasnt familiar at all: curly brown hair, average height, late twenties. Prettygood-looking, really. But his name... something about his name..."Ms. Karp," I gasped. "Youre the one... you were involved with Ms. Karp."He stiffened, blue eyes narrowing warily. "What do you know about that?"I swallowed. What Id done--or tried to do for Dimitri--wasnt without precedent. "You loved her.You went out to kill her after she... after she turned."Ms. Karp had been a teacher of ours a few years ago. Shed been a spirit user, and as the effectsof it began to drive her insane, shed done the only thing she could to save her mind: become aStrigoi. Mikhail, her lover, had done the only thing hed known to end that evil state: search forand kill her. It occurred to me that I was standing face-to-face with the hero of a love story nearlyas dramatic as my own."But you never found her," I said softly. "Did you?"He took a long time in answering, his eyes weighing me heavily. I wondered what he wasthinking about. Her?His own pain? Or was he analyzing me?
  • "No," he said finally. "I had to stop. The guardians needed me more."He spoke in that calm, controlled way that guardians excelled at, but in his eyes, I saw grief--agrief I more than understood. I hesitated before taking a shot at the only chance I had to not getbusted and end up in a jail cell."I know... I know you have every reason to drag me out of here and turn me in. You should. Itswhat youre supposed to do--what Id do too. But the thing is, this..." I again nodded at the folder."Well, Im kind of trying to do what you did. Im trying to save someone."He remained quiet. He could probably guess who I meant and assumed "save" meant "kill." If heknew who I was, hed know who my mentor had been. Few knew about my romantic relationshipwith Dimitri, but me caring about him would have been a foregone conclusion."Its futile, you know," Mikhail said at last. This time, his voice cracked a little. "I tried... I triedso hard to find her. But when they disappear... when they dont want to be found..." He shook hishead. "Theres nothing we can do. I understand why you want to do it. Believe me, I do. But itsimpossible. Youll never find him if he doesnt want you to."I wondered how much I could tell Mikhail--how much I should. It occurred to me then that ifthere was anyone else in this world who understood what I was going through, it would be thisman. Besides, I didnt have a lot of options here."The thing is, I think I can find him," I said slowly. "Hes looking for me.""What?" Mikhails eyebrows rose. "How do you know?""Because he, um, sends me letters about it."
  • That fierce warrior look immediately returned. "If you know this, if you can find him... youshould get backup to kill him."I flinched at those last words and again feared what I had to say next. "Would you believe me if Isaid there was a way to save him?""You mean by destroying him."I shook my head. "No... I mean really save. A way to restore him to his original state.""No," Mikhail said swiftly. "Thats impossible.""It might not be. I know someone who did it--who turned a Strigoi back." Okay, that was a smalllie. I didnt actually know the person, but I wasnt going to get into the string of knowing-someone-who-knew-someone..."Thats impossible," Mikhail repeated. "Strigoi are dead. Undead.Same difference.""What if there was a chance?" I said. "What if it could be done? What if Ms. Karp--if Sonya--could become Moroi again? What if you could be together again?" Itd also mean shed be crazyagain, but that was a technicality for later.It felt like an eternity before he answered, and my anxiety grew. Lissa couldnt compel forever,and Id told Mia I would be fast. This plan would fall apart if I didnt get out soon. Yet, watchinghim deliberate, I could see his mask falter. After all this time, he still loved his Sonya."If what youre saying is true--and I dont believe it--then Im coming with you."
  • Whoa, no. Not in the plan. "You cant," I said swiftly. "Ive already got people in place." Anothersmall lie. "Adding more might ruin things. Im not doing it alone," I said, cutting off what Ifigured would be his next argument. "If you really want to help me--really want to take a chanceon bringing her back--you need to let me go.""Theres no way it can be true," he repeated. But there was doubt in his voice, and I played on it."Can you take that chance?"More silence. I was starting to sweat now. Mikhail closed his eyes for a moment and took a deepbreath. Then he stepped aside and gestured to the door. "Go."I nearly sagged in relief and immediately grabbed the door handle. "Thank you. Thank you somuch.""I could get in a lot of trouble for this," he said wearily. "And I still dont believe its possible.""But you hope it is." I didnt need a response from him to know I was right. I opened the door,but before going through, I paused and glanced at him. This time, he no longer hid the grief andpain in his face. "If you mean it... if you want to help... there might be a way you can."Another piece of the puzzle had unraveled itself for me, another way we might pull this off. Iexplained what I needed from him and was surprised at how quickly he agreed. He really waslike me, I realized. We both knew the idea of bringing back Strigoi was impossible... and yet weso, so wanted to believe it could be doneI slipped back upstairs alone after that. Don wasnt at his desk, and I wondered what Mia haddone with him. I didnt wait to find out and instead headed outside, off to a small courtyard thatwed established as our rendezvous point. Mia and Lissa were both waiting there, pacing. Nolonger distracted with anxiety, I opened myself to the bond and felt Lissas agitation.
  • "Thank God," she said when she saw me. "We thought youd been caught.""Well... its a long story." One I didnt bother with. "I got what I needed. And... I actually got awhole lot more. I think we can do this."Mia gave me a look that was both wry and wistful. "I sure do wish I knew what you guys weredoing."I shook my head as the three of us walked away. "No," I replied. "Im not sure that you do." Chapter FiveI DECIDED ITD BE BEST if Lissa and I stayed up late when we returned to her room, poringover the documents. She was a jumble of feelings when I told her about my encounter withMikhail--which I hadnt mentioned to Mia. Lissas initial reaction was surprise, but there wereother things too. Fear over the trouble I could have gotten into. A bit of warm romanticism overwhat both Mikhail and I were willing to do for those we loved. Wonder if she would do the sameif Christian were in that situation. She decided instantly that she would; her love for him was stillthat strong. Then she told herself that she actually didnt care about him anymore, which I wouldhave found annoying if I wasnt so distracted."Whats wrong?" she asked.Id sighed aloud in dismay without realizing it while I read her thoughts. Not wanting her toknow Id been perusing her mind, I pointed at the papers spread out on her bed. "Just trying tomake sense of this." Not entirely that far off from the truth.The prisons layout was complex. The cells occupied two floors and were tiny--only one prisonerper cell. The papers didnt explain why, but the reason was obvious. It went along with what Abehad said about keeping criminals from turning Strigoi. If Id been locked away in prison foryears, I could understand the temptation of cracking and killing my roommate to become Strigoiand escape. The cells were also kept housed in the very center of the building, surrounded by
  • guards, offices, "exercise rooms," a kitchen, and a feeders room. The documents explained guardrotations, as well as prisoner feeding schedules. They were apparently escorted to the feeders oneat a time, heavily guarded, and only allowed very short spurts of blood. Again, everything keptthe prisoners weak and prevented them from turning Strigoi.It was all good information, but I had no reason to believe any of it was up-to-date, since the filewas five years old. It was also likely the prison had all sorts of new surveillance equipment inplace. Probably the only things we could count on being the same were the prisons location andthe buildings layout."How good are you feeling about your charm-making skills?" I asked Lissa.Although she hadnt been able to put as much spirit healing into my ring as a woman I knewnamed Oksana could, I had noticed my darkness-induced temper soothed a little. Lissad made aring for Adrian too, though I couldnt say for sure if it was what was helping him control hisvices lately--vices he usually indulged in to control spirit.She shrugged and rolled over onto her back. Exhaustion filled her, but she was trying to stayawake for my sake. "Getting better. Wish I could meet Oksana.""Maybe someday," I said vaguely. I didnt think Oksana would ever leave Siberia. Shed run offwith her guardian and wanted to keep a low profile. Besides, I didnt want Lissa over thereanytime soon after my ordeals. "Have you been able to put in anything besides healing?" Amoment later, I answered my own question. "Oh, right. The spoon."Lissa grimaced, but it turned into a yawn. "I dont think it worked so well.""Hmm.""Hmm?"
  • I glanced back at the blueprints. "Im thinking if you could make a few more compulsion charms,it would go a long way to help with this. We need to make people see what we want them tosee." Surely if Victor--whose powers of compulsion were nowhere near hers--had managed a lustcharm, she could do what I needed. She just needed more practice. She understood the basicprinciples but had trouble making her desired effects last. The only problem was that in askingher to do this, I was making her use more spirit. Even if the side effects didnt show up rightaway, they would likely come back to haunt her in the future.She glanced at me curiously, but when I saw her yawn again, I told her not to worry about it. Idexplain tomorrow. She offered no argument, and after a quick hug, we each retired to our ownbeds. We werent going to get much sleep, but we had to get what we could. Tomorrow was a bigday.Id worn a variation of the guardians formal black-and-white outfit when I went to Victors trial.In normal bodyguard situations, we wore ordinary clothes. But for fancy events, they wanted uslooking crisp and professional. The morning after our daring break-in, I got my first true taste ofguardian fashion.Id worn hand-me-down clothes at Victors trial but now had an official guardian outfit, tailoredexactly to my measurements: straight-legged black slacks, a white button-up blouse, and a blackdress jacket that fit me perfectly. It certainly wasnt meant to be sexy, but the way it hugged mystomach and hips did good things for my body. I felt satisfied with my reflection in the mirror,and after several minutes of thought, I pulled my hair into a neatly braided bun that showed offmy molnija marks. The skin was still irritated, but at least the bandage was gone. I looked very...professional. I was actually kind of reminded of Sydney. She was an Alchemist--a human whoworked with Moroi and dhampirs to hide the existence of vampires from the world. With herproper sense of fashion, she always looked ready for a business meeting. I kept wanting to sendher a briefcase for Christmas.If ever there was a time for me to show off, today was the day. After the trials and graduation,this was the next biggest step in becoming a guardian. It was a luncheon that all new gradsattended. Moroi eligible for new guardians would also attend, hoping to scope out the candidates.Our scores from school and the trials would have been made public knowledge by now, and this
  • was a chance for Moroi to meet us and put in bids for who they wanted to guard them. Naturally,most guests would be royal, but a few other important Moroi would also qualify.I really had no interest in showing off and hooking a posh family. Lissa was the only one Iwanted to guard. Still, I had to make a good impression. I needed to make it clear that I was theone who should be with her.She and I walked over to the royal ballroom together. It was the only place large enough to holdus all, since more than just St. Vladimirs grads were in attendance. All the American schools hadsent their new recruits, and for a moment, I found the sea of black and white dizzying. Bits ofcolor--royals dressed up in their finest clothing--livened the palette up a little. Around us, softwatercolor murals made the walls seem to glow. Lissa hadnt worn a ball gown or anything, butshe looked very elegant in a formfitting teal dress made of raw silk.The royals mingled with the social ease theyd been raised with, but my classmates moved aboutuneasily. No one seemed to mind. It wasnt our job to seek out others; we would be approached.The grads all wore name tags--engraved metal ones. There were no HELLO, MY NAME IS...stickers here. The tags made us identifiable so that the royals could come and do theirinterrogations.I didnt expect anyone except my friends to talk to me, so Lissa and I headed straight for thebuffet and then occupied a quiet corner to munch on our canapes and caviar. Well, Lissa atecaviar. It reminded me too much of Russia.Adrian, of course, sought us out first. I gave him a crooked grin. "What are you doing here? Iknow you arent eligible for a guardian."With no concrete plans for his future, it was assumed Adrian would simply live at Court. Assuch, hed need no outside protection--though hed certainly qualify if he chose to strike out intothe world.
  • "True, but I could hardly miss a party," he said. He held a glass of champagne in his hand, and Iwondered if the effects of the ring Lissa had given him were wearing off. Of course, theoccasional drink really wasnt the end of the world, and the dating proposals language had beenloose in that area. It was mostly the smoking I wanted him to stay away from. "Have you beenapproached by a dozen hopeful people?"I shook my head. "Who wants reckless Rose Hathaway? The one who drops out without warningto do her own thing?""Plenty," he said. "I sure do. You kicked ass in the battle, and remember--everyone thinks youwent off on some Strigoi-killing spree. Some might think its worth your crazy personality.""Hes right," a voice suddenly said. I looked up and saw Tasha Ozera standing near us, a smallsmile on her scarred face. In spite of the disfigurement, I thought she looked beautiful today--more royal than Id ever seen her. Her long black hair gleamed, and she wore a navy skirt andlacy tank top. She even had on high heels and jewelry--something I was certain Id never seen herwearing.I was happy to see her; I hadnt known shed come to Court. An odd thought occurred to me."Have they finally let you have a guardian?" The royals had a lot of quiet, polite ways ofshunning those who were in disgrace. In the Ozeras case, their guardian allotment had been cutin half as kind of a punishment for what Christians parents had done. It was totally unfair. TheOzeras deserved the same rights as any other royal family.She nodded. "I think theyre hoping itll shut me up about Moroi fighting with dhampirs. Kind ofa bribe.""One you wont fall for, Im sure.""Nope. If anything, itll just give me someone to practice with." Her smile faded, and she castuncertain looks among us. "I hope you wont be offended... but I put in a request for you, Rose."
  • Lissa and I exchanged startled glances. "Oh." I didnt know what else to say."I hope theyll give you to Lissa," Tasha added hastily, clearly uncomfortable. "But the queenseems pretty dead-set on her own choices. If thats the case...""Its okay," I said. "If I cant be with Lissa, then I really would rather be with you." It was thetruth. I wanted Lissa more than anyone else in the world, but if they kept us apart, then Idabsolutely prefer Tasha to some snobby royal. Of course, I was pretty sure my odds of gettingassigned to her were as bad as those of getting assigned to Lissa. Those who were angry at mefor running off would go out of their way to put me in the most unpleasant situation possible.And even if she was being granted a guardian, I had a feeling Tashas preferences wouldnt behigh priority either. My future was still a big question mark."Hey," exclaimed Adrian, offended that I hadnt named him as my second choice.I shook my head at him. "You know theyd assign me to a woman anyway. Besides, youve got todo something with your life to earn a guardian."I meant it jokingly, but a small frown made me think I might have actually hurt his feelings.Tasha, meanwhile, looked relieved. "Im glad you dont mind. In the meantime, Ill do what I canto help you two." She rolled her eyes. "Not that my opinion counts for much."Sharing my misgivings about getting assigned to Tasha seemed pointless. Instead, I started tothank her for the offer, but we were then joined by yet another visitor: Daniella Ivashkov."Adrian," she chastised gently, a small smile on her face, "you cant keep Rose and Vasilisa all toyourself." She turned to Lissa and me. "The queen would like to see you both."Lovely. We both stood up, but Adrian remained sitting, having no desire to visit his aunt. Tashaapparently didnt either. Seeing her, Daniella gave a curt, polite nod. "Lady Ozera." She then
  • walked away, assuming wed follow. I found it ironic that Daniella seemed willing to accept mebut still held that typical aloof Ozera-prejudice. I guess her niceness only went so far.Tasha, however, had long since grown immune to that sort of treatment. "Have fun," she said.She looked over at Adrian. "More champagne?""Lady Ozera," he said grandly, "you and I are two minds with a single thought."I hesitated before following Lissa to Tatiana. Id taken in Tashas grand appearance but only nowreally paid attention to something. "Is all your jewelry silver?" I asked.She absentmindedly touched the opal necklace around her neck. Her fingers were adorned withthree rings. "Yes," she said, confused. "Why?""This is going to sound really weird... well, maybe not compared to my normal weirdness. Butcould we, um, borrow all of those?"Lissa shot me a look and immediately guessed my motives. We needed more charms and wereshort on silver. Tasha arched an eyebrow, but like so many of my friends, she had a remarkableability to roll with weird ideas."Sure," she said. "But can I give them to you later? I dont really want to strip my jewelry in themiddle of this party.""No problem.""Ill have them sent to your room."
  • With that settled, Lissa and I walked over to where Tatiana was surrounded by admirers andthose wanting to suck up. Daniella had to be mistaken in saying Tatiana wanted to see both of us.The memory of her yelling at me over Adrian still burned in my head, and dinner at theIvashkovs hadnt fooled me into thinking the queen and I were suddenly best friends.Yet, astonishingly, when she caught sight of Lissa and me, she was all smiles. "Vasilisa.AndRosemarie." She beckoned us closer, and the group parted. I approached with Lissa, my stepstentative. Was I going to get yelled at in front of all these people?Apparently not. There were always new royals to meet, and Tatiana first introduced Lissa to allof them. Everyone was curious about the Dragomir princess. I was introduced as well, though thequeen didnt go out of her way to sing my praises as she did Lissas. Still, being acknowledged atall was incredible."Vasilisa," said Tatiana, once the formalities were finished, "I was thinking you should visitLehigh soon. Arrangements are being made for you to go in, oh, maybe a week and a half. Wethought it would be a nice treat for your birthday. Serena and Grant will accompany you,naturally, and Ill send a few others." Serena and Grant were the guardians who had replacedDimitri and me as Lissas future protection. Of course theyd be going with her. Then, Tatianasaid the most startling thing of all. "And you can go too, if youd like, Rose. Vasilisa couldhardly celebrate without you."Lissa lit up. Lehigh University. The lure that had made her accept a life at Court. Lissa yearnedfor as much knowledge as she could get, and the queen had given her a chance at it. The prospectof a visit totally filled her with eagerness and excitement--especially if she could celebrate hereighteenth birthday there with me. It was enough to distract her from Victor and Christian, whichwas saying something."Thank you, Your Majesty. Thatd be great."There was a strong possibility, I knew, that we might not be around for this scheduled visit--notif my plan for Victor worked. But I didnt want to ruin Lissas happiness--and I could hardly
  • mention it in this royal crowd. I was also kind of stunned that Id been invited at all. After issuingthe invite, the queen said nothing else to me and continued speaking with the others around her.Yet, shed been pleasant--for her, at least--while addressing me, just as she had at the Ivashkovhome. Not best-friend nice but certainly not raving-bitch insane, either. Maybe Daniella had beenright.More pleasantries followed as everyone chatted and tried to impress the queen, and it soonbecame clear that I was no longer needed. Glancing around the room, I found someone I neededto talk to and meekly separated myself from the group, knowing Lissa could fend for herself."Eddie," I called, reaching the other side of the ballroom. "Alone at last."Eddie Castile, a longtime friend of mine, grinned when he saw me. He too was a dhampir, tallwith a long, narrow face that still had a cute, boyish look to it. He had tamed his dark, sandy-blond hair for a change. Lissa had once hoped Eddie and I would date, but he and I were strictlyjust friends. His best friend had been Mason, a sweet guy whod been crazy about me and whohad been murdered by Strigoi. After his death, Eddie and I had adopted protective attitudestoward each other. Hed later been kidnapped during the attack at St. Vladimirs, and hisexperiences had made him a serious and determined guardian--sometimes a little too serious. Iwanted him to have more fun and was delighted to see the happy glint in his hazel eyes now."I think every royal in the rooms been trying to bribe you," I teased. It wasnt entirely a joke. Idbeen keeping an eye on him throughout the party, and thered always been someone with him.His record was stellar. Surviving the awful events in his life might have scarred him, but theyreflected well on his skills. He had great grades and ratings from the trial. Most importantly, hedidnt have my reckless reputation. He was a good catch."Kind of seems that way." He laughed. "I didnt really expect it.""Youre so modest. Youre the hottest thing in this room.""Not compared to you."
  • "Yeah. As shown by the people lining up to talk to me. Tasha Ozeras the only one who wantsme as far as I know. And Lissa, of course."Lines of thought creased Eddies face. "Could be worse.""It will be worse. No way will I get either of them."We fell silent, and a sudden anxiety filled me. Id come to ask a favor of Eddie, and it no longerseemed like a good idea. Eddie was on the verge of a shining career. He was a loyal friend, andId been certain hed help with what I needed... but I suddenly didnt think I could ask. Like Mia,however, Eddie was observant."Whats wrong, Rose?" His voice was concerned--that protective nature kicking in.I shook my head. I couldnt do it. "Nothing.""Rose," he said warningly.I looked away, unable to meet his eyes. "Its not important. Really." Id find another way,someone else.To my surprise, he reached out to touch my chin and tip my head back up. His gaze caught mine,allowing no escape. "What do you need?"I stared at him for a long time. I was so selfish, risking the lives and reputations of friends I caredabout. If Christian and Lissa werent on the outs, Id be asking him, too. But Eddie was all thatwas left to me.
  • "I need something... something thats pretty extreme."His face was still serious, but his lips tugged into a wry smile. "Everything you do is extreme,Rose.""Not like this. This is... well, its something that could ruin everything for you. Get you in bigtrouble. I cant do that to you."That half smile vanished. "It doesnt matter," he said fiercely. "If you need me, Ill do it. Nomatter what it is.""You dont know what it is.""I trust you.""Its kind of illegal. Treasonous, even."That took him aback for a moment, but he stayed resolute. "Whatever you need. I dont care. Ivegot your back." Id saved Eddies life twice, and I knew he meant what he said. He felt indebtedto me. He would go wherever I asked, not out of romantic love, but out of friendship and loyalty."Its illegal," I repeated. "Youd have to sneak out of Court... tonight. And I dont know whenwed be back." It was entirely possible that we wouldnt come back. If we had a run-in withprison guards... well, they might take lethal measures to do their duty. It was what all of us hadtrained for. But I couldnt pull this breakout off with Lissas compulsion alone. I needed anotherfighter at my back.
  • "Just tell me when."And that was all there was to it. I didnt tell him the full extent of our plan, but I gave him thatnights rendezvous location and told him what he would need to bring. He never questioned me.He said hed be there. New royals came to talk to him just then, and I left him, knowing hedshow up later. It was hard, but I pushed aside my guilt over possibly endangering his future.Eddie arrived, just as hed promised, when my plan unfolded later that night. Lissa did too.Again, night meant "broad daylight." I felt that same anxiety I did when wed sneaked aroundwith Mia. Light exposed everything, but then, most people were asleep. Lissa, Eddie, and I stillmoved through the Courts grounds as covertly as we could, meeting Mikhail in a section of thecompound that held all sorts of garaged vehicles. The garages were big metal, industrial-lookingbuildings set on the fringes of Court, and no one else was out.We slipped into the garage hed indicated last night, and I was relieved to find no one else there.He surveyed the three of us, looking surprised at my "strike team," but he offered no questionsand made no further attempts to join us. More guilt surged up within me. Here was someone elsewho was risking his future for me."Gonna be a tight fit," he mused.I forced a smile. "Were all friends here."Mikhail didnt laugh at my joke but instead popped the trunk of a black Dodge Charger. Hewasnt kidding about the tight fit. It was a newer one, which was kind of a shame. An oldermodel would have been bigger, but guardians only kept top-of-the-line stuff around."Once were far enough away, Ill pull over and let you out," he said."Well be fine," I assured him. "Lets do this."
  • Lissa, Eddie, and I crawled into the trunk. "Oh God," muttered Lissa. "I hope no onesclaustrophobic."It was like a bad game of Twister. The trunk was large enough for some luggage but not intendedfor three people. We were squeezed together, and personal space was nonexistent. We were allup close and personal. Satisfied we were all snug, Mikhail closed the trunk and darknessengulfed us. The engine started a minute later, and I felt the car move."How long until you think we stop?" asked Lissa. "Or die from carbon monoxide poisoning?""We havent even left the Court yet," I noted. She sighed.The car drove off, and not too long afterward, we came to a stop. Mikhail must have reached thegates and been chatting with the guards. Hed told me earlier that hed come up with some excuseor other to run an errand, and we had no reason to believe the guards would question him orsearch the car. The Court wasnt worried about people sneaking out, like our school had been.The biggest concern here was people getting inside.A minute passed, and I uneasily wondered if there was a problem. Then the car moved again, andall three of us exhaled in relief. We picked up speed, and after what I suspected was a mile or so,the car veered sideways and came to a stop. The trunk popped open, and we spilled out of it. Idnever been so grateful for fresh air. I got in the passenger seat beside Mikhail, and Lissa andEddie took the back. Once we were settled, Mikhail continued driving without another word.I allowed myself a few more moments of guilt over the people Id involved but then let it go. Itwas too late to worry now. I also let go of my guilt about Adrian. He would have been a goodally, but I could hardly ask for his help in this.And with that, I settled back and turned my thoughts to the job before us. It would take us aboutan hour to get to the airport, and from there, the three of us were off to Alaska.
  • Chapter Six"YOU KNOW WHAT WE NEED?"I was sitting between Eddie and Lissa, on our flight from Seattle to Fairbanks. As the shortest--marginally--and the mastermind, Id gotten stuck with the middle seat."A new plan?" asked Lissa."A miracle?" asked Eddie.I paused and glared at them both before responding. Since when had they become the comedianshere? "No. Stuff. We need cool gadgets if were going to pull this off." I tapped the prisonblueprint that had been on my lap for almost every part of our trip so far. Mikhail had dropped usoff at a small airport an hour away from the Court. Wed caught a commuter flight from there toPhiladelphia, and from there to Seattle and now Fairbanks. It reminded me a little of the crazyflights Id had to take from Siberia back to the U.S. That journey had also gone via Seattle. I wasstarting to believe that city was a gateway to obscure places."I thought the only tools we needed were our wits," mused Eddie. He might be serious about hisguardian work most of the time, but he could also turn on his dry humor when relaxed. Not thathe was totally at ease with our mission here, now that he knew more of (but not all) the details. Iknew hed snap back into readiness once we landed. Hed been understandably shocked when Idrevealed we were freeing Victor Dashkov. I hadnt told Eddie anything about Dimitri or spirit,only that getting Victor out played a larger role in the greater good. Eddies trust in me was soimplicit that hed taken me at my word and pursued the issue no further. I wondered how hedreact when he learned the truth."At the very least, were going to need a GPS," I said. "Theres only latitude and longitude on thisthing. No real directions."
  • "Shouldnt be hard," said Lissa, turning a bracelet over and over in her hands. Shed opened hertray and spread out Tashas jewelry across it. "Im sure even Alaska has modern technology."Shed also turned on a droll attitude, even with anxiety radiating through the bond.Eddies good mood faded a little. "I hope you arent thinking of guns or anything like that.""No. Absolutely not. If this works how we want, no one will even know were there." A physicalconfrontation was likely, but I hoped to minimize serious injury.Lissa sighed and handed me the bracelet. She was worried because a lot of my plan depended onher charms--literally and figuratively. "I dont know if thisll work, but maybe itll give you moreresistance."I took the bracelet and slipped it on my wrist. I felt nothing, but I only rarely did with charmedobjects. Id left Adrian a note saying that Lissa and I had wanted to escape for a "girls getaway"before my assignment and her college visit. I knew hed be hurt. The girl angle would carry a lotof weight, but hed feel injured at not being invited along on a daring vacation--if he evenbelieved we were on one. He probably knew me well enough by now to guess most of myactions had ulterior motives. My hope was that hed spread the story to Court officials when ourdisappearance was noticed. Wed still get in trouble, but a wild weekend was better than a prisonbreak. And honestly, how could things get worse for me? The one flaw here was that Adriancould visit my dreams and grill me on what was really going on. It was one of the moreinteresting--and occasionally annoying--spirit abilities. Lissa hadnt learned to walk dreams, butshe had a crude understanding of the principle. Between that and compulsion, shed tried tocharm the bracelet in a way that would block Adrian when I slept later.The plane began its descent into Fairbanks, and I gazed out the window at tall pines and stretchesof green land. In Lissas thoughts, I read how shed been half-expecting glaciers and snowbanks,despite knowing it was full summer here. After Siberia, Id learned to keep an open mind aboutregional stereotypes. My biggest concern was the sun. It had been full daylight when wed leftthe Court, and as our travels took us west, the time zone change meant that the sun stayed withus. Now, though it was almost nine in the evening, we had a full, sunny blue sky, thanks to ournorthern latitude.
  • It was like a giant safety blanket. I hadnt mentioned this to Lissa or Eddie, but it seemed likelyDimitri would have spies everywhere. I was untouchable at St. Vladimirs and the Court, but hisletters had clearly stated hed be waiting for me to leave those boundaries. I didnt know theextent of his logistics, but humans watching the Court in daylight wouldnt have surprised me.And even though Id left hidden in a trunk, there was a strong possibility that Dimitri was alreadyin pursuit. But the same light that guarded the prisoners would keep us safe too. Wed barelyhave a few hours of night to guard against, and if we pulled this off quickly, wed be out ofAlaska in hardly any time at all. Of course, that might not be such a good thing. Wed lose thesun.Our first complication came after we landed and tried to rent a car. Eddie and I were eighteen,but none of the car companies would rent to anyone so young. After the third refusal, my angerbegan to grow. Who would have thought wed be delayed by something so idiotic? Finally, at afourth counter, the woman hesitantly told us that there was a guy about a mile from the airportwho would likely rent us a car if we had a credit card and a big enough deposit.We made the walk in pleasant weather, but I could tell the sun was starting to bother Lissa by thetime we reached our destination. Bud--of Buds Rental Cars--didnt seem quite as sleazy asexpected and did indeed rent us a car when we produced enough money. From there, we got aroom at a modest motel and went over our plans again.All our information indicated that the prison ran on a vampire schedule, which meant this wastheir active time of the day. Our plan was to stay in the hotel until the following day, when theMoroi "night" came, and catch some sleep beforehand. It gave Lissa more time to work on hercharms. Our room was easily defendable.My sleep was Adrian-free, for which I was grateful, meaning hed either accepted the girl trip orcouldnt break through Lissas bracelet. In the morning, we rustled up some doughnuts forbreakfast and ate a little bleary-eyed. Running against our vampire schedule was throwing us alloff a little.The sugar helped kick-start us, though, and Eddie and I left Lissa around ten to go do somescouting. We bought my coveted GPS and a few other things at a sporting goods store along theway and used it to navigate remote country roads that seemed to lead nowhere. When the GPS
  • claimed we were a mile from the prison, we pulled off to the side of a small dirt road and set offon foot across a field of tall grass that stretched endlessly before us."I thought Alaska was tundra," said Eddie, crunching through the tall stalks. The sky was blueand clear again, with only a few clouds that did nothing to keep the sun away. Id started out in alight jacket but now had it tied around my waist as I sweated. Occasionally a welcome gust ofwind would roll through, flattening the grass and whipping my hair around."I guess not all parts. Or maybe we have to go further north. Oh, hey. This looks promising."We came to a stop before a high, barbwire fence with an enormous PRIVATE PROPERTY--NOUNAUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ALLOWED sign on it. The lettering was red, apparently toemphasize how serious they were. Personally, I would have added a skull and crossbones toreally drive the message home.Eddie and I studied the fence for a few moments, then gave each other resigned glances. "Lissawill heal up anything we get," I said hopefully.Climbing barbed wire isnt impossible, but its not fun. Tossing my jacket on the wires I had togrip went a long way to protect me, but I still ended up with some scratches and snaggedclothing. Once I was at the top, I jumped down, preferring the jolting landing to another climbdown. Eddie did the same, grimacing at the hard impact.We walked a little farther, and then the dark line of a building came into sight. We both came toa halt as one and knelt down, seeking what coverage we could in the grass. The prison file hadindicated that they had cameras on the outside, which meant we risked detection if we got tooclose. Id bought high-power binoculars along with the GPS and took them out now, studying thebuildings exterior.The binoculars were good--really good--as well they should have been for the price. The level ofdetail was amazing. Like so many Moroi creations, the building was a mixture of the old and thenew. The walls were made of sinister gray stone blocks and almost entirely obscured the actual
  • prison, whose roof just barely peeped above. A couple of figures paced along the top of thewalls, living eyes to go with the cameras. The place looked like a fortress, impenetrable andinescapable. It deserved to be on a rocky cliff, with a sinister black sky behind it. The field andsun seemed out of place.I handed the binoculars to Eddie. He made his own assessment and then gestured to the left."There."Squinting, I just barely made out a truck or SUV driving up toward the prison. It went around theback and vanished from sight. "Our only way in," I murmured, recalling the blueprint. We knewwe had no shot of scaling the walls or even getting close enough on foot without being spotted.We needed to literally walk through the front door, and thats where the plan got a little sketchy.Eddie lowered the binoculars and glanced over at me, brow furrowed. "I meant what I saidbefore, you know. I trust you. Whatever reason youre doing this, I know its a good one. Butbefore things start moving, are you sure this is what you want?"I gave a harsh laugh. "Want? No. But its what we need to do."He nodded. "Good enough."We watched the prison a while longer, moving around to get different angles while still keepinga wide perimeter. The scenario was about what wed expected, but having a 3-D visual was stillhelpful.After about a half hour, we returned to the hotel. Lissa sat cross-legged on one of the beds, stillworking on the charms. The feelings coming through her were warm and content. Spirit alwaysmade her feel good--even if it had side effects later--and she thought she was making progress."Adrian called my cell phone twice," she told me when we entered.
  • "But you didnt answer?""Nope.Poor guy."I shrugged. "Its better this way."We gave her a rundown of what wed seen, and her happy mood began to plummet. Our visitmade what we were going to do later today more and more real, and working with so much spirithad already put her on edge. A few moments later, I sensed her swallowing her fear. She becameresolved. Shed told me she would do this and she intended to stand by her word, even thoughshe dreaded each second that brought her closer to Victor Dashkov.Lunch followed, and then a few hours later, it was time to put the plan into motion. It was earlyevening for humans, which meant the vampiric night would be drawing to an end soon. It wasnow or never. Lissa nervously distributed the charms shed made for us, worried they wouldntwork. Eddie dressed up in his newly bestowed black-and-white guardian formalwear while Lissaand I stayed in our street clothes--with a couple alterations. Lissas hair was a mousy brown, theresult of some wash-in temporary hair color. My hair was tightly bound up underneath a curlyred wig that reminded me uncomfortably of my mother. We sat in the backseat of the car whileEddie drove us chauffeur style back along the remote road wed followed earlier. Unlike before,we didnt pull over. We stayed on the road, driving right up to the prison--or, well, to itsgatehouse. No one spoke as we drove, but the tension and anxiety within us all grew and grew.Before we could even get near the outer wall, there was a checkpoint manned by a guardian.Eddie brought the car to a stop, and I tried to look calm. He lowered the window, and theguardian on duty walked over and knelt so that they were at eye level."Whats your business here?"
  • Eddie handed over a piece of paper, his attitude confident and unconcerned, as though this wereperfectly normal. "Dropping off new feeders."The file had contained all sorts of forms and papers for prison business, including status reportsand order forms for supplies--like feeders. Wed made a copy of one of the feeder requisitionforms and filled it out."I wasnt notified of a delivery," the guardian said, not suspicious so much as puzzled. He peeredat the paperwork. "This is an old form."Eddie shrugged. "Its just what they gave me. Im kind of new at this."The man grinned. "Yeah, you barely look old enough to be out of school."He glanced toward Lissa and me, and despite my practiced control, I tensed. The guardianfrowned as he studied us. Lissa had given me a necklace, and shed taken a ring, both charmedwith a slight compulsion spell to make others think we were human. It would have been mucheasier to make her victim wear a charm and force them to think they were seeing humans, butthat wasnt possible. The magic was harder this way. He squinted, almost like he was looking atus through a haze. If the charms had worked perfectly, he wouldnt have given us a secondglance. The charms were a little flawed. They were changing our appearances but not quite asclearly as wed hoped. That was why wed gone to the trouble of altering our hair: if the human-illusion failed, wed still have some identity protection. Lissa readied herself to work directcompulsion, though wed hoped it wouldnt come to that with every person we met.A few moments later, the guardian turned from us, apparently deciding we were human after all.I exhaled and unclenched my fists. I hadnt even realized Id been holding them. "Hang on aminute, and Ill call this in," he told Eddie.The guardian stepped away and picked up a phone inside his booth. Eddie glanced back at us."So far so good?"
  • "Aside from the old form," I grumbled."No way to know if my charms working?" asked Eddie.Lissa had given him one of Tashas rings, charmed to make him appear tan-skinned and black-haired. Since she wasnt altering his race, the magic only needed to blur his features. Like ourhuman charms, I suspected it wasnt projecting the exact image shed hoped for, but it shouldhave altered his appearance enough that no one would identify Eddie later. With our resistance tocompulsion--and knowing there was a charm in place, which negated its effects on us--Lissa andI couldnt say for certain what he looked like to others."Im sure its fine," said Lissa reassuringly.The guardian returned. "They say go on in, and theyll sort it out there.""Thanks," said Eddie, taking the form back.The guards attitude implied that he assumed this was a clerical error. He was still diligent, butthe idea of someone sneaking feeders into a prison was hardly the kind of thing one wouldexpect--or view as a security risk. Poor guy.Two guardians greeted us when we arrived at the door in the prisons wall. The three of us gotout and were led into the grounds between the wall and the prison itself. Whereas St. Vladimirsand the Courts grounds had been lush and filled with plants and trees, the land here was starkand lonely. Not even grass, just hard-packed earth. Was this what served as the prisoners"exercise area"? Were they even allowed outside at all? I was surprised there wasnt a moat ofsome sort out here.
  • The inside of the building was as grim as its exterior. The holding cells at Court were sterile andcold, all metal and blank walls. Id expected something similar. But whoever had designedTarasov had foregone the modern look and instead emulated the kind of prison one might havefound back in Romania in medieval days. The harsh stone walls continued down the hall, grayand foreboding, and the air was chill and damp. It had to make for unpleasant working conditionsfor the guardians assigned here. Presumably they wanted to ensure the intimidating facadeextended everywhere, even for prisoners first entering the gates. According to our blueprint,there was a little section of dorms where employees lived. Hopefully those were nicer.Dark Ages decor or not, we passed the occasional camera as we walked down the hallway. Thisplaces security was in no way primitive. Occasionally we heard the heavy slamming of a door,but overall, there was a perfect, eerie silence that was almost creepier than shouts and screams.We were taken to the wardens office, a room that still had the same gloomy architecture yet wasfilled with the usual administrative accessories: desk, computer, etc. It looked efficient, nothingmore. Our escorts explained that we were going to see the assistant warden, since the senior onewas still in bed. It figured. The subordinate would have gotten stuck with the night shift. I hopedthat meant he was tired and unobservant. Probably not. That rarely happened to guardians, nomatter their assignments."Theo Marx," said the assistant warden, shaking Eddies hand. He was a dhampir not much olderthan us, and I wondered if hed only been freshly assigned here."Larry Brown," replied Eddie. Wed come up with a boring name for him, one that wouldntstand out, and had used it in the paperwork.Theo didnt speak to Lissa and me, but he did give us that same puzzled glance the first guy hadas the charms glamour attempted its illusion. Another delay followed, but once more, we slippedthrough. Theo returned his attention to Eddie and took the requisition form."This is different from the usual one," he said.
  • "I have no clue," said Eddie apologetically. "This is my first time."Theo sighed and glanced at the clock. "The wardenll be on duty in another couple hours. I thinkwere just going to have to wait until hes here to figure out whats going on. Sommerfieldsusually got their act together."There were a few Moroi facilities in the country that gathered feeders--those on the fringes ofhuman society who were content to spend their lives high on vampire endorphins--and thendistributed them. Sommerfield was the name of one such facility, located in Kansas City."Im not the only new person they just received," Eddie said. "Maybe someone got confused.""Typical," snorted Theo. "Well, you might as well have a seat and wait. I can get coffee if youwant.""When are we getting a feeding?" I suddenly asked, using the whiniest, dreamiest voice I could."Its been so long."Lissa followed my lead. "They said we could when we got here."Eddie rolled his eyes at what was typical feeder behavior. "Theyve been like this the wholetime.""I can imagine," said Theo. "Humph. Feeders." The door to his office was partially ajar and hecalled out of it. "Hey, Wes? Can you come here?"One of the escort guardians stuck his head inside. "Yeah?"
  • Theo gave us a dismissive wave. "Take these two down to the feeding area so they dont drive uscrazy. If someones up, they can use them."Wes nodded and beckoned us out. Eddie and I made the briefest of eye contact. His facebetrayed nothing, but I knew he was nervous. Getting Victor out was our job now, and Eddiedidnt like sending us to the dragons lair.Wes led us through more doors and security checkpoints as we went deeper into the prison. Irealized that for every layer of security I crossed to get in, I was going to have to cross it again toescape. According to the blueprint, the feeding area was situated on the opposite side of theprison. Id assumed wed take some route along the periphery, but instead we cut right throughthe buildings center--where the prisoners were kept. Studying had given me a sense of thelayout, but Lissa didnt realize where we were headed until a sign alerted us: WARNING--NOWENTERING PRISONER AREA (CRIMINAL). I thought that was an odd wording. Wasnteveryone in here a criminal?Heavy double doors blocked this section off, and Wes used both an electronic code and aphysical key to cross through. Lissas pace didnt change, but I felt her anxiety increase as weentered a long corridor lined with bar-covered cells. I didnt feel any better about it myself, butWes--while still alert--didnt display any sign of fear. He entered this area all the time, I realized.He knew its security. The prisoners might be dangerous, but passing by them was a routineactivity for him.Still, peeking inside the cells nearly made my heart stop. The little compartments were as darkand gloomy as anything, containing only bare-bones furnishings. Most of the prisoners wereasleep, thankfully. A few, however, watched as we walked by. None of them said anything, butthe silence was almost scarier. Some of the Moroi held there looked like ordinary people youdpass on the street, and I wondered what they could have possibly done to end up here. Theirfaces were sad, devoid of all hope. I did a double take and realized that some of the prisonerswerent Moroi; they were dhampirs. It made sense but still caught me off guard. My own kindwould have criminals that needed to be dealt with, too.But not all of the prisoners appeared benign. Others looked like they definitely belonged inTarasov. There was a malevolence about them, a sinister feel as their eyes locked onto us and
  • didnt let go. They scrutinized our every detail, though for what reason, I couldnt say. Were theyseeking out anything that might offer escape? Could they see through our facades? Were theysimply hungry? I didnt know but felt grateful for the silent guardians posted throughout the hall.I was also grateful that I didnt see Victor and assumed he lived in a different hall. We couldntrisk being recognized yet.We finally exited the prisoners corridor through another set of double doors and at last reachedthe feeding area. It too felt like a medieval dungeon, but images had to be kept up for the sake ofthe prisoners. Decor aside, the feeding rooms layout was similar to what St. Vladimirs had,except it was smaller. A few cubicles offered moderate privacy, and a bored-looking Moroi guywas reading a book at a desk but looked ready to fall asleep. There was only one feeder in theroom, a scraggly-looking, middle-aged human who sat in a chair with a dopey smile on his face,staring at nothing.The Moroi flinched when we entered, his eyes going wide. Clearly, we were the most excitingthing to happen to him all night. He didnt have that moment of disorientation when he glanced atus; he apparently had low compulsion resistance, which was good to know."Whats this?""Two new ones just came in," said Wes."But were not due," said the Moroi. "And we never get ones this young. They always give us theold, used-up ones.""Dont ask me," said Wes, moving toward the door once hed indicated seats for Lissa and me. Itwas clear he found escorting feeders beneath him. "Marx wants them here until Sullivan gets up.My guess is its going to turn out to be a mistake, but they were complaining about needing afix."
  • "Wonderful," groaned the Moroi. "Well, our next meals due in fifteen minutes, so I can giveBradley over there a break. Hes so gone, I doubt hed notice if someone else gave blood insteadof him."Wes nodded. "Well call down when weve got this straight."The guardian left, and the Moroi picked up a clipboard with a sigh. I had the feeling everyonehere was kind of tired of their jobs. I could understand why. This had to be a miserable place towork. Give me the wider world anytime."Whos due to feed in fifteen minutes?" I asked.The Morois head jerked up in astonishment. It wasnt the kind of question a feeder asked. "Whatdid you say?"Lissa stood up and got him in her gaze. "Answer her question."The mans face went slack. He was easy to compel. "Rudolf Kaiser."No one either of us recognized. He could have been in here for mass murder or embezzlementfor all I knew. "Whens Victor Dashkov due?" asked Lissa."Two hours.""Alter the schedule. Tell his guards theres been a readjustment and he has to come now insteadof Rudolf."
  • The Morois blank eyes--now as dazed looking as Bradley the feeders, really--seemed to take amoment to process this. "Yes," he said."This is something that might happen normally. It wont raise suspicion.""It wont raise suspicion," he repeated in a monotone."Do it," she ordered, voice hard. "Call them, set it up, and do not take your eyes off of me."The Moroi complied. While speaking on the phone, he identified himself as Northwood. Whenhe disconnected, the arrangements had been made. We had nothing to do but wait now. Myentire body was tightly wound with tension. Theo had said we had over an hour until the wardenwas on duty. No one would ask questions until then. Eddie simply had to kill time with Theo andnot raise suspicions behind a paperwork error. Calm down, Rose. You can do this.While we waited, Lissa compelled Bradley the feeder into a heavy sleep. I didnt want anywitnesses, even not drugged ones. Likewise, I turned the rooms camera ever so slightly, so it nolonger could see the bulk of the room. Naturally, wed have to deal with the prisons entiresurveillance system before we left, but for now, we needed no watching security personnel tocatch sight of what was about to happen.I had just settled into one of the cubicles when the door opened. Lissa had stayed in her chairnear Northwoods desk, so that she could keep her compulsion on him. Wed instructed him that Iwould be the feeder. I was enclosed, but through Lissas sight, I saw the group enter: twoguardians... and Victor Dashkov.The same distress shed felt when seeing him at her trial shot up within her. Her heart rateincreased. Her hands shook. The only thing that had finally calmed her back at the trial was theresolution of it all, knowing Victor would be locked away forever and unable to hurt her again.
  • And now we were about to change all that.Forcibly, Lissa shoved her fear out of her mind so that she could keep her hold on Northwood.The guardians beside Victor were stern and ready for action, though they didnt really need to be.The sickness that had plagued him for years--the one Lissa had temporarily healed him of--wasstarting to rear its head again. Lack of exercise and fresh air appeared to have taken a toll too, ashad the limited blood prisoners were supposedly given. The guards had him clad in shackles asan extra precaution, and the heavy weight dragged him down, almost making him shuffle."Over there," said Northwood, pointing at me. "That one."The guardians led Victor past Lissa, and he barely gave her a second glance. She was workingdouble compulsion: keeping Northwood under her control and using a quick burst to makeherself insignificant to Victor when he walked by. The guardians settled him into a chair besideme and then stepped back, still keeping him in sight. One of them struck up conversation withNorthwood, noting our newness and youth. If I ever did this again, Id have Lissa charm us intolooking older.Sitting beside me, Victor leaned toward me and opened his mouth. Feedings were so secondnature, the motions always the same, that he hardly had to think about what he did. It was like hedidnt even see me.Except, then... he did.He froze, his eyes going wide. Certain characteristics marked the royal Moroi families, and light,jade-green eyes ran amongst both the Dashkovs and the Dragomirs. The weary, resigned look inhis disappeared, and the cunning sharpness that so characterized him--the shrewd intellect I knewwell--snapped into place. It reminded me eerily of some of the prisoners wed passed earlier.But he was confused. Like the other people wed encountered, my charm was muddling histhoughts. His senses told him I was a human... yet the illusion wasnt perfect. There was also thefact that Victor, as a strong non-spirit compulsion wielder, was relatively resistant to it. And just
  • as Eddie, Lissa, and I had been immune to one anothers charms because we knew our trueidentities, Victor experienced the same effect. His mind might insist that I was human, but hiseyes told him I was Rose Hathaway, even with my wig. And once that knowledge was solidified,the human illusion disappeared for him.A slow, intrigued smile spread over his face, blatantly displaying his fangs. "Oh my. This mightbe the best meal Ive ever had." His voice was barely audible, covered by the conversation of theothers."Put your teeth anywhere near me and itll be your last meal," I murmured, voice just as quiet."But if you want any chance of getting out of here and seeing the world again, youll do exactlywhat I say."He gave me a questioning look. I took a deep breath, dreading what I had to say next."Attack me." Chapter Seven"NOT WITH YOUR TEETH," I added hastily. "Throw yourself at me. Swing your shackles.Whatever you can do."Victor Dashkov was not a stupid man. Others might have hesitated or asked more questions. Hedid not. He might not know exactly what was going on, but he sensed that this was a shot atfreedom. Possibly the only one hed ever get. He was someone who had spent a large part of hislife masterminding complicated plots, so he was a pro at slipping right into them.Holding his hands up as much as he could manage, he lunged at me, making a good show oftrying to choke me with the chain between his cuffs. As he did, I gave a bloodcurdling shriek. Inan instant, the guardians were there to stop this crazy prisoner who was senselessly attacking apoor girl. But as they reached to subdue him, I leapt up and attacked them. Even if theydexpected me to be dangerous--and they hadnt--I had so much surprise on them that they had notime to react. I almost felt bad at how unfair it was to them.
  • I punched the first hard enough that he lost his grip on Victor and flew backward, hitting the wallnear Lissa as she frantically compelled Northwood to stay calm and not call anyone in the midstof this chaos. The other guardian had slightly more time to react, but he was still slow in lettinggo of Victor and turning on me. I used the opening and got a punch in, forcing the two of us intoa grappling match. He was big and formidable, and once he deemed me a threat, he didnt holdback. A blow to my shoulder sent shooting pain through my arm, and I responded with a swiftknee in his stomach. Meanwhile, his counterpart was on his feet heading toward us. I had to endthis fast, not only for my own sake but also because they would undoubtedly call for backup ifgiven a moments chance.I grabbed the one closest to me and pushed him as hard as I could into a wall--headfirst. Hestaggered, dazed, and I did it again, just as his partner reached me. That first guardian slumped tothe ground, unconscious. I hated doing that, but part of my training had been learning todifferentiate between incapacitating and killing. He should only have a headache. I hoped. Theother guardian was very much on the offensive, however, and he and I circled each other, gettingin some shots and dodging others."I cant knock him out!" I called to Lissa. "We need him. Compel him."Her response came through the bond. She could compel two people at the same time, but it tooka lot of strength. We werent out of this yet, and she couldnt risk burning herself out so soon.Frustration replaced fear within her."Northwood, go to sleep," she barked. "Right there.On your desk. Youre exhausted and willsleep for hours."Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Northwood slump, his head hitting the desk with a thump.Everyone who worked here would have a concussion by the time we were through. I threwmyself at the guardian then, using my full weight to get him within Lissas line of sight. Shepushed her way into our fight. He glanced at her in surprise, and that was all she needed.
  • "Stop!"He didnt respond as quickly as Northwood, but he did hesitate. This guy was more resistant."Stop fighting!" she repeated more forcefully, intensifying her will.Strong or not, he couldnt stand against that much spirit. His arms fell to his sides, and he stoppedwrestling me. I stepped back to catch my breath, straightening my wig back into place."Holding this ones going to be hard," Lissa told me."Hard as in five minutes or five hours?""Somewhere in the middle.""Then lets move. Get Victors key from him."She demanded the guardian give her the key for the shackles. He told us the other guardian hadit. Sure enough, I frisked the unconscious body--he was breathing steadily, thank God--andretrieved the key. Now I turned my full attention on Victor. Once the fight had started, hedstepped out of the way and simply observed quietly while all sorts of new possibilitiesundoubtedly formed in his twisted mind.I approached and put on my "scary face" as I held up the key. "Im going to unlock your cuffsnow," I told him, in a voice both sweet and menacing. "Youre going to do exactly what we tellyou to do. Youre not going to run, start a fight, or in any way interfere with our plans.""Oh? Are you using compulsion nowadays too, Rose?" he asked dryly.
  • "I dont need it." I unlocked the shackles. "I can render you unconscious as easily as that guy anddrag you out. Makes no difference to me."The heavy cuffs and chains fell to the floor. That sly, smug look stayed on his face, but his handsgently touched each wrist. I noticed then that there were welts and bruises on them. Thoseshackles werent meant for comfort, but I refused to feel sorry for him. He glanced back up at us."How charming," he mused. "Out of all the people who would attempt to rescue me, I neverwould have expected you two... and yet, in retrospect, youre probably the most capable.""We dont need your running commentary, Hannibal," I snapped. "And dont use the wordrescue. It makes it sound like youre some wrongfully imprisoned hero."He arched an eyebrow, like he believed that might indeed be the case. Instead of disputing me,he nodded toward Bradley, who had actually slept through the fight. In his drugged state, Lissascompulsion had been more than enough to knock him out."Give him to me," said Victor."What?" I exclaimed. "We dont have time for this!""And I have no strength for whatever you have in mind," hissed Victor. That pleasant and all-knowing mask vanished, replaced by one vicious and desperate. "Imprisonment involves morethan bars, Rose. They starve us of food and blood, trying to keep us weak. Walking here is theonly exercise I get, and thats effort enough. Unless you really do plan on dragging me out ofhere, give me blood!"Lissa interrupted any response I could make. "Be fast."
  • I stared at her in astonishment. Id been about to deny Victor, but through the bond I felt an oddmix of feelings from her. Compassion and... understanding. Oh, she still hated him, absolutely.But she also knew what it was like to live on limited blood.Mercifully, Victor was fast. His mouth was at the humans neck practically before Lissa finishedspeaking. Dazed or no, feeling teeth in his neck was enough to wake Bradley up. He woke with astart, his face soon moving into the delight feeders took from vampire endorphins. A short burstof blood was all Victor would need, but when Bradleys eyes started to go wide in surprise, Irealized Victor was taking more than a quick drink. I leapt forward and jerked Victor away fromthe scattered feeder."What the hell are you doing?" I demanded, shaking Victor hard. It was something Id wanted todo for a long time. "Did you think you could drain him and become Strigoi right in front of us?""Hardly," said Victor, wincing at the grip I had on him."Thats not what he was doing," said Lissa. "He just lost control for a second."His bloodlust satisfied, Victors smooth demeanor had returned. "Ah, Vasilisa.Always sounderstanding.""Dont make any assumptions," she growled.I shot glares at both of them. "We have to go. Now." I turned to the compelled guardian. "Takeus to the room where they monitor all security footage."He didnt respond to me, and with a sigh, I looked expectantly at Lissa. She repeated myquestion, and he immediately began to leave the room. My adrenaline was running high from the
  • fight, and I was anxious to finish all of this and get us out of here. Through the bond, I sensed hernervousness. She might have defended Victors need for blood, but as we walked, she kept as faraway from him as possible. The stark realization of who he was and what we were doing wascreeping up on her. I wished I could comfort her, but there was no time.We followed the guardian--Lissa asked his name; it was Giovanni--through more halls andsecurity checkpoints. The route he led us on went around the prisons edge, not through the cells.I held my breath almost the entire time, terrified wed run into someone. Too many other factorswere working against us; we didnt need that too. Our luck held, though, and we ran into no one--again probably a result of doing this near the end of the night and not passing through a high-security zone.Lissa and Mia had gotten the Court guardian to erase the security footage there too, but I hadntwitnessed it. Now, when Giovanni led us into the prisons surveillance room, I couldnt help asmall gasp. Monitors covered the walls, and consoles with complex buttons and switches sat infront of them. Computer-covered desks were everywhere. I felt like this room had the power toblast off into space. Everything in the prison was in view: each cell, several halls, and even thewardens office, where Eddie sat making small talk with Theo. Two other guardians were in here,and I wondered if theyd seen us in the halls. But no--they were too fixated on something else: acamera that had been turned to face a blank wall. It was the one Id adjusted in the feeding room.They were leaning toward it, and one of them was saying how they should call someone to checkdown there. Then they both looked up and noticed us."Help her subdue them," Lissa ordered Giovanni.Again, there was hesitation. We would have been better off with a "helper" with a weaker will,but Lissa had had no idea when she chose him. Like before, he eventually sprang into action.Also like before, surprise went a long way in subduing these two guardians. I was a stranger--immediately raising their guard--but still appeared as human. Giovanni was their coworker; theydidnt expect an attack from him.
  • That didnt make them easy to take down, though. Having backup went a long way, andGiovanni was good at his job. We rendered one guardian unconscious pretty quickly, Giovanniusing a choke hold to briefly cut off the guys air until he collapsed. The other guard kept hisdistance from us, and I noticed his eyes continually shifting toward one of the walls. It had a fireextinguisher, a light switch, and a round silver button."Thats an alarm!" exclaimed Victor, just as the guardian lunged for it.Giovanni and I tackled him at the same time, stopping the guy just before his hand could brushthe button and send a legion of guards down on us. A blow to the head knocked this guardian outtoo. With each person I took out in this prison break, a knot of guilt and nausea twisted tighterand tighter in my stomach. Guardians were the good guys, and I couldnt help but keep thinking Iwas fighting on the side of evil.Now that we were left to ourselves, Lissa knew the next step. "Giovanni, disable all the camerasand erase the last hours worth of footage."There was a greater hesitation on his part this time. Getting him to fight his friends had requireda lot of forceful compulsion on her part. She was keeping her control but growing weary, and itwas only going to get harder making him obey our commands."Do it," growled Victor, coming to stand beside Lissa. She flinched at his proximity, but as hisgaze joined hers, Giovanni complied with the order and began flipping switches on the consoles.Victor couldnt match Lissas power by a long shot, but his small burst of compulsion hadstrengthened hers.One by one, the monitors went black, and then Giovanni typed in a few commands on thecomputer that stored digital footage from the cameras. Red error lights were flashing on theconsoles, but there was no one here now to fix them."Even if he erases it, there are those who might be able to recover it from the hard drive," notedVictor.
  • "Its a chance well have to take," I said irritably. "Reprogramming or whatever isnt really in myskill set."Victor rolled his eyes. "Perhaps, but destruction certainly is."It took me a moment to get what he meant, but then it clicked. With a sigh, I grabbed the fireextinguisher from the wall and beat the computer to a pulp until it was nothing more than a pileof plastic and metal fragments. Lissa winced at each blow and kept glancing at the door."I hope thats soundproof," she muttered."It looks sturdy," I said confidently. "And now its time to go."Lissa ordered Giovanni to return us to the wardens office at the front of the prison. He complied,leading us back through the maze wed gone through earlier. His codes and security card got usthrough each checkpoint."I dont suppose you can compel Theo into letting us walk out?" I asked Lissa.Her mouth was set in a grim line. She shook her head. "I dont even know how much longer I canhold Giovanni. Ive never used someone as a puppet before.""Its okay," I said, trying to reassure both of us. "Were almost done with this."But we were going to have another fight on our hands. After beating up half the Strigoi inRussia, I still felt good about my own strength, but that guilty feeling wouldnt leave me. And ifwe ran into a dozen guardians, even my strength wasnt going to hold.
  • Id lost my bearings from the blueprint, but it turned out that Giovannis route back to the mainoffice was taking us through a block of cells after all. Another sign read overhead WARNING--NOW ENTERING PRISONER AREA (PSYCHIATRIC)."Psychiatric?" I asked in surprise."Of course," murmured Victor. "Where else do you think they send prisoners with mentalproblems?""To hospitals," I responded, holding back a joke about all criminals having mental problems."Well, thats not always--""Stop!"Lissa interrupted him and came to an abrupt halt before the door. The rest of us nearly walkedinto her. She jerked away, taking several steps back."Whats wrong?" I asked.She turned to Giovanni. "Find another way to the office.""This is the fastest way," he argued.Lissa slowly shook her head. "I dont care. Find another, one where we wont run into others."
  • He frowned, but her compulsion held. He abruptly turned, and we scurried to keep up. "Whatswrong?" I repeated. Lissas mind was too tangled for me to pull out her reasoning. She grimaced."I felt spirit auras behind there.""What? How many?""At least two. I dont know if they sensed me or not."If not for Giovannis clip and the urgency pressing on us, I would have come to a stop. "Spiritusers..."Lissa had looked so long and hard for others like her. Whod have thought wed find them here?Actually... maybe we should have expected this. We knew spirit users danced with insanity. Whywouldnt they end up in a place like this? And considering the trouble wed gone through to learnabout the prison, it was no wonder these spirit users had remained hidden. I doubted anyoneworking here even knew what they were.Lissa and I exchanged brief glances. I knew how badly she wanted to investigate this, but nowwasnt the time. Victor already looked too interested in what wed said, so Lissas next wordswere in my head: Im pretty sure any spirit users would see through my charms. We cant risk ourreal descriptions being discovered--even if they came from people who are allegedly crazy.I nodded my understanding, pushing aside curiosity and even regret. Wed have to check into thisanother time--say, like, the next time we decided to break into a maximum-security prison.We finally reached Theos office without further incident, though my heart pounded furiously theentire way as my brain kept telling me, Go! Go! Go! Theo and Eddie were chatting Court politicswhen our group entered. Eddie immediately leapt up and went for Theo, recognizing it was timeto go. He had Theo in a choke hold as efficiently as Giovanni had managed earlier, and I was
  • glad someone else was doing this dirty work besides me. Unfortunately, Theo managed a goodyelp before passing out and falling to the ground.Immediately, the two guardians who had escorted us in earlier charged the office. Eddie and Ijumped into the fray, and Lissa and Victor got Giovanni in on it too. To make things moredifficult, just after we subdued one of the guardians, Giovanni broke out of the compulsion andbegan fighting against us. Worse, he ran to the wall where I discovered--too late--there wasanother silver alarm button. He slammed his fist against it, and a piercing wail filled the air."Shit!" I yelled.Lissas skills werent in physical fighting, and Victor wasnt much better. It was all on me andEddie to finish these last two--and we had to do it fast. The second of the escort guardians wentdown, and then it was just us and Giovanni. He got a good hit in on me--one that knocked myhead against the wall. It wasnt good enough to make me pass out, but the world spun and blackand white spots danced before my eyes. It froze me up for a moment, but then Eddie was on him,and Giovanni was soon no longer a threat.Eddie took my arm to steady me, and then the four of us immediately ran out of the room. Iglanced back at the unconscious bodies, again hating myself for it. There was no time for guilt,though. We had to get out. Now. Every guardian in this prison would be here in less than aminute.Our group ran to the front doors, only to discover them locked from the inside. Eddie swore andtold us to wait. He ran back to Theos office and returned with one of the security cards thatGiovanni had often swiped at the doors. Sure enough, this one let us out, and we made a maddash for the rental car. We piled in, and I was glad Victor kept up with all of us and made noneof his annoying comments.Eddie stepped on the gas and headed back toward the way wed come in. I sat beside him in thefront. "I guarantee the gate guys going to know about the alarm," I warned. Our original hopehad been to simply leave and tell him thered been a paperwork mix-up after all.
  • "Yup," Eddie agreed, face hard. Sure enough, the guardian stepped out of his gatehouse, armswaving."Is that a gun?" I exclaimed."Im not stopping to find out." Eddie pushed hard on the gas, and when the guardian realized wewere coming through regardless, he jumped out of the way. We crashed through the wooden armthat blocked the road, leaving it a mess of splinters."Buds gonna keep our deposit," I said.Behind us, I heard the sounds of gunshots. Eddie swore again, but as we sped away, the shotsgrew fainter, and soon, we were out of range. He exhaled. "If those had hit our tires or windows,wed have had a lot more to worry about than a deposit.""Theyre going to send people after us," said Victor from the backseat. Once again, Lissa hadmoved as far from him as she could. "Trucks are probably leaving right now.""You dont think we guessed that?" I snapped. I knew he was trying to be helpful, but he was thelast person I wanted to hear from at the moment. Even as I spoke, I peered back and saw the darkshapes of two vehicles speeding down the road after us. They were gaining quickly, leaving noquestion that the SUVs would soon catch up to our little compact car.I looked at our GPS. "We need to turn soon," I warned Eddie, not that he needed my advice.Wed mapped out an escape route beforehand, one that took lots and lots of twisty turns on theseremote back roads. Fortunately, there were a lot of them. Eddie made a hard left and then almostan immediate right. Still, the pursuing vehicles stayed with us in the rearview mirror. It wasntuntil a few turns later that the road behind us stayed clear.
  • Tense silence filled the car as we waited for the guardians to catch up. They didnt. Wed madetoo many confusing turns, but it took nearly ten minutes for me to accept that we might haveactually pulled this off."I think we lost them," said Eddie, the wonder in his voice matching my feelings. His face wasstill lined with worry, his hands gripping the wheel hard."We wont lose them until we clear Fairbanks," I said. "Im sure theyll search it, and its not thatbig.""Where are we going?" asked Victor. "If Im allowed to ask."I squirmed around in my seat so that I could look him in the eye. "Thats what youre going to tellus. As hard as it is to believe, we didnt do all that just because we missed your pleasantcompany.""That is hard to believe."I narrowed my eyes. "We want to find your brother. Robert Doru."I had the satisfaction of momentarily catching Victor off guard. Then his sly look returned. "Ofcourse. This is a follow-up to Abe Mazurs request, isnt it? I should have known he wouldnttake no for an answer. Of course, I never would have guessed you were in league with him."Victor apparently didnt know I was actually in the familial league with Abe, and I wasnt aboutto enlighten him. "Irrelevant," I said coldly. "Now, youre going to take us to Robert. Where ishe?"
  • "You forget, Rose," mused Victor. "You arent the one with compulsion here.""No, but I am the one who can tie you up by the side of the road and make an anonymous callback to the prison with your whereabouts.""How do I know you wont get what you want from me and then turn me back in anyway?" heasked. "I have no reason to trust you.""Youre right. I sure as hell wouldnt trust me. But if things work out, theres a chance we mightlet you go afterward." No, there really wasnt. "Is this something you want to gamble on? Youllnever get another opportunity like this, and you know it."Victor had no witty quip for that. Score another one for me."So," I continued, "are you going to take us to him or not?"Thoughts I couldnt read churned behind his eyes. No doubt he was scheming about how hecould work this to his advantage, probably figuring out how to escape us before we even reachedRobert. It was what I would have done."Las Vegas," Victor said at last. "We need to go to Las Vegas." Chapter EightAFTER THE BITCHING ID DONE to Abe about always going to remote, crappy places, Ishould have been excited about the prospect of going to Sin City. Alas, I had a few reservationsabout my next epic trip. First of all, somewhere like Las Vegas was the last place I would expecta semi-crazy recluse to be. From the bits and pieces Id heard, Robert had dropped off the radarand wanted to be alone. A busy, tourist-filled city didnt really fit that description. Second, citieslike that were perfect feeding grounds for Strigoi. Crowded.Reckless.Low inhibitions.Very easyfor people to disappear--especially when most of them were out at night.
  • Part of me was certain it had to be a trick on Victors part, but he swore up and down that it wastrue. So, with no other leads, Las Vegas became our next destination. We didnt have much timeto debate the matter anyway, knowing the guardians would be searching Fairbanks for us.Admittedly, Lissas charms had altered our appearances enough that they wouldnt be looking forpeople with our descriptions. They knew what Victor looked like, though, so the sooner we wereout of Alaska, the better.Unfortunately, we had a slight problem."Victor has no ID," said Eddie. "We cant take him on a plane."It was true. All of Victors possessions had been seized by prison authorities, and in the midst ofdisabling surveillance and taking out half a dozen guardians, wed hardly had time to gosearching for his personal stuff. Lissas compulsion was phenomenal, but she was exhausted afterwielding so much at the prison. Besides, guardians would likely be watching the airport.Our "friend" Bud the car rental guy provided the solution. He hadnt been thrilled to see his carreturned with all the scratches from Eddies daredevil driving, but enough cash had finallystopped the humans muttering about "renting to a bunch of kids." It was Victor who thought ofan alternative plan and suggested it to Bud."Is there a private airport nearby? With flights we might charter?""Sure," said Bud. "But it wont be cheap.""Its not an issue," I said.Bud eyed us askance. "Did you guys rob a bank or something?"
  • No, but we were packing a lot of currency. Lissa had a trust fund that doled her out monthlymoney until she was eighteen, as well as a high-limit credit card. I had a credit card of my own,leftover from when Id sweet-talked Adrian into funding my Russian trip. Id let go of the rest ofmy assets, like the huge bank account hed set up. But, wrong or not, Id decided to keep one cardon hand, just in case of emergency.This was certainly an emergency, so we used the card to pay for part of the private planes cost.The pilot couldnt take us as far as Las Vegas, but he could take us to Seattle, where he was ableto connect us with another pilot he knew who could go the rest of the way. More money."And Seattle again," I mused, just before the plane took off. The little jets interior had a set offour seats, two on each side facing each other. I sat next to Victor, and Eddie sat across fromhim. We figured that was the best protective configuration."What about Seattle?" asked Eddie, puzzled."Never mind."Little private jets arent nearly as fast as big commercial ones, and our trip took a large part of theday. During it, I continued asking Victor about his brothers role in Las Vegas and finally got theanswer I wanted. Victor would have had to tell us eventually, but I think hed gotten a sadisticthrill out of prolonging the answer."Robert doesnt live in Las Vegas proper," he explained. "He has a small house--a cabin, Isuppose--out by Red Rock Canyon, miles outside the city."Ah. Now that was more what Id expected. Lissa stiffened at the mention of a cabin, and I feltunease through the bond. When Victor had kidnapped her, hed taken her to a cabin in the woodsand tortured her there. I gave her as reassuring a look as I could. It was times like these I wishedthe bond worked both ways so that I could truly send her comfort.
  • "So well go out there?"Victor snorted. "Certainly not. Robert values his privacy too much. He wouldnt let strangerscome to his home. But hell come to the city if I ask."Lissa eyed me. Victor could be setting us up. He had lots of supporters. Now that hes out, hecould call them instead of Robert to meet us.I gave her a tiny nod, again wishing I could respond back through the bond. Id thought of this aswell. It was imperative we never leave Victor alone to make unsupervised calls. And actually,this plan to meet in Las Vegas itself made me feel better. For our own safety from Victorshenchmen, it was better to be in the city than out in the middle of nowhere."Seeing as Ive been so helpful," said Victor, "I have the right to know what you want with mybrother." He glanced at Lissa. "Looking for spirit lessons? You had to have done some excellentinvestigative work to find out about him.""You have no right to know about our plans," I retorted sharply. "And seriously? If yourekeeping track of whos been the most helpful here, we are totally beating you on the score-card.Youve got a ways to go to catch up after what we did at Tarasov."Victors only response was a small smile.Some of our flight time took place at night, which meant it was early morning when we landed inLas Vegas. The safety of sunlight. I was surprised to see how crowded the airport was. Theprivate one in Seattle had had a fair amount of planes, but the Fairbanks airport had nearly beendeserted. This strip was chock-full of little jets, many of them screaming "luxury." I shouldnthave been surprised. Las Vegas was the playground of celebrities and other wealthy people,many of whom probably couldnt lower themselves to fly commercial with ordinary passengers.
  • There were taxis there, sparing us the ordeal of another rental car. But when the driver asked uswhere we were going, we all stayed silent. I turned to Victor."The middle of the city, right?The Strip?""Yes," he agreed. Hed been certain Robert would want to meet strangers somewhere verypublic. Somewhere he could easily flee."The Strips a big place," said the driver. "You got any place in particular or should I just dropyou off in the middle of the street?"Silence fell over us. Lissa shot me a meaningful look. "The Witching Hour?"I considered it. Las Vegas was a favorite place for some Moroi. The bright sun made it lessappealing for Strigoi, and the windowless casinos created comfortable, dark atmospheres. TheWitching Hour was a hotel and casino wed all heard of. While it had plenty of human customers,it was actually owned by Moroi, so it had lots of clandestine features to make it a great getawayfor vampires. Feeders in back rooms.Special Moroi-only lounges.A fair number of guardians onpatrol.Guardians...I shook my head and glanced sideways at Victor. "We cant take him there." Of all the hotels inLas Vegas, the Witching Hour was the last wed want to go to. Victors escape had to be breakingnews all over the Moroi world. Taking him into Vegass largest concentration of Moroi andguardians was probably the worst thing we could do at this point.In the rearview mirror, the drivers face looked impatient. It was Eddie who finally piped up."The Luxor."
  • He and I were in the backseat, with Victor between us, and I peered over. "Where did that comefrom?""It puts distance between us and the Witching Hour." Eddie suddenly looked a little sheepish."And Ive always wanted to stay there. I mean, if youre coming to Vegas, why not stay in apyramid?""You cant fault that logic," said Lissa."The Luxor it is," I said to the driver.We rode in silence, all of us--well, except for Victor--staring at the sights in awe. Even in thedaytime, the streets of Las Vegas were teeming with people. The young and glamorous walkedside by side with older couples from Middle America, whod probably saved and saved to makethis trip. The hotels and casinos we passed were huge, flashy, and inviting.And when we reached the Luxor... yup. It was just like Eddie had said. A hotel shaped like apyramid. I stared up at it when we got out of the car, trying hard not to let my jaw drop like thestarry-eyed tourist I was. I paid the driver and we headed inside. I didnt know how long wed bestaying, but we definitely needed a room as our base of operation.Stepping into the hotel was like being back in the night-clubs in Saint Petersburg andNovosibirsk. Flashing lights and the overwhelming scent of smoke. And noise. Noise, noise,noise. The slot machines beeped and rang, chips fell, people yelled in dismay or delight, and thelow thrum of conversation filled the room like humming bees. I grimaced. The stimuli grated onmy senses.We passed through the casinos edge to get to the front desk, where the attendant didnt evenblink at three teenagers and an old man getting a room together. I had to imagine that aroundhere, they saw it all. Our room was average-size, with two double beds, and somehow wedlucked out with an amazing view. Lissa stood at the window, entranced by the sights of peopleand cars on the Strip below, but I jumped straight to business.
  • "Okay, call him," I ordered Victor. Hed settled down on one of the beds, hands crossed andexpression serene, as though he truly were on vacation. Despite that smug smile, I could see thefatigue etched on his face. Even with his blood refill, the escape and long trip had beenexhausting, and the effects of his slowly returning disease were naturally taking a toll on hisphysical strength.Victor immediately reached for the hotels phone, but I shook my head. "Liss, let him use yourcell. I want a record of this number."She gingerly handed the phone over, as though he might contaminate it. He took it and gave me anigh-angelic look. "I dont suppose I could have some privacy? Its been so long since Robert andI have talked.""No," I snapped. The harshness in my voice startled even me, and it occurred to me Lissa wasntthe only one suffering from all the spirit used today.Victor gave a small shrug and began dialing. Hed told us on one of the flights that he hadRoberts number memorized, and I had to take it on faith that that was who he was calling. I alsohad to hope Roberts number hadnt changed. Of course, even if Victor hadnt seen his brother inyears, Victor had only been imprisoned a short while and had probably kept tabs on Robertbeforehand.Tension filled the room as we waited while the phone rang. A moment later, I heard a voiceanswer through the phones speaker--though I couldnt make out the exact words."Robert," said Victor pleasantly, "its Victor."This received a frantic response on the other end. I only could hear half of the conversation, butit was intriguing. Victor first had to spend a lot of time convincing Robert that he was out ofprison. Apparently, Robert wasnt so removed from Moroi society that he was out of touch with
  • current news. Victor told him that the details would be revealed later and then began making hispitch for Robert to come meet us.It took a long time. I got the feeling that Robert lived in fear and paranoia, which reminded me ofMs. Karp when shed been in the advanced stages of spirits insanity. Lissas gaze stayed fixed onthe scene outside the window during the entire call, but her feelings mirrored mine: fear that thiscould someday be her fate. Or mine as well, if I siphoned away spirits effects. The image of theTarasov sign flashed briefly through her mind: WARNING--NOW ENTERING PRISONERAREA (PSYCHIATRIC).Victors voice turned surprisingly cajoling as he spoke to his brother, gentle even. I wasreminded uneasily of the old days, before wed known about Victors demented plans for Moroidomination. Back then, hed treated us kindly too and had practically been a member of Lissasfamily. I wondered if at some point hed been sincere or if it had all been an act.Finally, after almost twenty minutes, Victor convinced Robert to come see us. The unintelligiblewords on the other end of the phone were filled with anxiety, and at this point, I felt convincedthat Victor truly was talking to his crazy brother and not one of his accomplices. Victor set up adinner meeting at one of the hotels restaurants and at last disconnected."Dinner?" I asked when Victor set the phone down. "Isnt he worried about being out after dark?""Its an early dinner," Victor replied. "Four thirty. And the sun wont go down until almost eight.""Four thirty?" I asked. "Good God. Are we getting the senior citizen special?"But he made a good point about the time and sun. Without the safety of Alaskas nearly nonstopsummer light, I was starting to feel suffocated by the pressure of sunrise and sunset boundaries,even though it was summer here. Unfortunately, a safe early dinner still meant we had hours topass.
  • Victor leaned back on the bed, arms behind his head. I think he was attempting an unconcernedair, but my guess was that it was actually exhaustion driving him to seek the beds comfort."Care to try your luck downstairs?" He glanced over at Lissa. "Spirit users make remarkablygood card players. I dont have to tell you how good you are at reading people." She made noresponse."Nobodys leaving this room," I said. I didnt like the idea of us all being cooped up here, but Icouldnt risk an escape attempt or Strigoi lurking in the casinos dark corners.After showering the dye from her hair, Lissa pulled up a chair by the window. She refused to getany closer to Victor. I sat cross-legged on the second bed, where there was plenty of room forEddie to sit too, but he remained upright against a wall, in perfect guardian posture as hewatched Victor. I had no doubt Eddie could maintain that position for hours, no matter howuncomfortable it got. Wed all been trained to endure harsh conditions. He did a good job atlooking stern, but every once in a while, Id catch him studying Victor curiously. Eddie had stoodby me in this act of treason but still didnt know why Id done it.Wed been there a few hours when someone knocked at the door. I leapt up.Eddie and I mirrored each other, both of us straightening to rigid attention, hands going for ourstakes. Wed ordered lunch an hour ago, but room service had long since come and gone. It wastoo early for Robert, and besides, he didnt know the name our room was under. There was nonausea, though. No Strigoi at our door. I met Eddies gaze, silent messages passing between uson what to do.But it was Lissa who acted first, rising from her chair and taking a few steps across the room."Its Adrian.""What?" I exclaimed. "Are you sure?"
  • She nodded. Spirit users usually only saw auras, but they could sense each other if they wereclose enough--just as she had at the prison. Still, none of us moved. She gave me a dry look."He knows Im here," she pointed out. "He can feel me too."I sighed, still keeping my hand on my stake, and strode to the door. I squinted through thepeephole. Standing there, his expression amused and restless, was Adrian. I could see no oneelse, and with no indication of Strigoi to be found, I finally opened the door. His face lit with joywhen he saw me. Leaning in, he gave me a quick kiss on the cheek before stepping into theroom."You guys didnt really think you could go off on a party weekend without me, did you?Especially here of all places--"He froze, and it was one of those rare moments when Adrian Ivashkov was caught totally andcompletely off guard."Did you know," he said slowly, "that Victor Dashkov is sitting on your bed?""Yeah," I said. "It was kind of a shock to us too."Adrian dragged his gaze from Victor and glanced around the room, noticing Eddie for the firsttime. Eddie had been standing so still that he practically seemed like part of the furniture. Adrianturned to me."What the hell is going on? Everyone is out looking for him!"Lissas words spoke to me through my bond. You might as well tell him. You know he wontleave now.
  • She was right. I didnt know how Adrian had found us, but now that he had, there was no wayhed go. I glanced hesitantly at Eddie, who guessed my thoughts."Well be fine," he said. "Go talk. I wont let anything happen."And Im strong enough again that I can compel him if he tries anything, Lissa added.I sighed. "Okay. Well be right back."I took Adrians arm and led him outside. As soon as we were in the hallway, he started in again."Rose, whats--"I shook my head. In our time here, Id heard enough noise from other hotel guests in the hall toknow that my friends would hear our conversation if we talked out there. Instead, Adrian and Itook the elevator and headed downstairs, where the noise of the casino would mask our words.We found a slightly out-of-the-way corner, and Adrian practically pushed me against the wall,his expression dark. His light attitude annoyed me sometimes, but I preferred it to when he wasupset, largely because I feared spirit would add an unstable edge."You leave me a note saying youre sneaking off for one last party weekend, and instead I findyou holed up with one of the most notorious criminals ever? When I left Court, thats alleveryone was talking about! Didnt that guy try to kill you?"I answered his question with a question. "How did you even find us?""The credit card," he said. "I was waiting for you to use it."
  • My eyes widened. "You promised me when I got all those that you wouldnt go snooping!" Sincemy accounts and cards had come with his help, Id known he had access to the records but hadbelieved him when hed said hed respect my privacy."When you were in Russia, I kept that promise. This is different. I kept checking and checkingwith the company, and as soon as the activity with the charter plane showed up, I called andfound out where you were going." Adrians arrival here so soon after ours wasnt thatunbelievable if he had been monitoring the card. Once hed had the information he needed, hecould have easily booked a flight. A nonstop commercial jet would have made up the time on ourslower, multistop trip. "There was no way I could resist Vegas," he continued. "So I thought Idsurprise you and show up to join in the fun." Id used my card for the room, I realized, againtipping off our location. No one else was linked to my or Lissas cards, but the ease with whichhed tracked us made me nervous."You shouldnt have done that," I growled. "We might be together, but there are boundariesyouve got to respect. This is none of your business.""Its not like I was reading your diary! I just wanted to find my girlfriend and--" It was a sign ofAdrians distress that his mind was only now beginning to backtrack and put pieces together. "Ohlord. Rose, please tell me you guys arent the ones who busted him out? Theyre all looking fortwo human girls and a dhampir guy. The descriptions dont match at all..." He groaned. "But itwas you, wasnt it? Somehow, you broke into a maximum-security prison. With Eddie.""Must not have been all that secure," I remarked lightly."Rose! This guy has fucked with both of your lives. Why would you free him?""Because..." I hesitated. How could I explain this to Adrian? How could I explain that which, byall evidence in our world, was impossible? And how could I explain what goal in particular wasdriving this? "Victor has information we need. Or, well, he has access to someone we need. Thiswas the only way we could get it."
  • "What on earth could he possibly know to make you do all this?"I swallowed. I walked into prisons and nests of Strigoi, but saying what I did next to Adrianfilled me with apprehension. "Because there might be a way to save Strigoi. To turn them back tothe way they were. And Victor... Victor knows someone who might have done this."Adrian stared at me for several long seconds, and even in the midst of the casinos movement andnoise, it was like the world grew still and silent."Rose, thats impossible.""It might not be.""If there was a way to do that, we would know.""It involves spirit users. And we only just found out about them.""That doesnt mean its--oh. I see." His deep green eyes flashed, and this time, they were angry."Its him, isnt it? This is your last crazy attempt to get to him. To Dimitri.""Not just him," I said vaguely. "It could save all Strigoi.""I thought this was over!" Adrian exclaimed. His voice was loud enough that a few people atnearby slot machines glanced over. "You told me it was over. You told me you could move onand be with me.""I meant it," I said, surprised at the desperate note in my voice. "Its something we only justfound out about. We had to try."
  • "And what then? What if this stupid fantasy works? You free Dimitri in some miraculous act,and you drop me like that." He snapped his fingers."I dont know," I said wearily. "Were just taking this one step at a time. I love being with you.Really. But I cant ignore this.""Of course you cant." He turned his eyes heavenward. "Dreams, dreams. I walk them; I livethem. I delude myself with them. Its a wonder I can spot reality anymore." The weird sound ofhis voice made me nervous. I could recognize one of his slightly crazy, spirit-induced lapses.Then, he turned from me with a sigh. "I need a drink."Whatever pity Id felt for him turned to anger. "Oh, good. Thatll fix everything. Im glad in aworld gone mad, youve still got your old standbys."I flinched at his glare. He didnt do it very often, and when he did, it was a powerful thing. "Whatdo you expect me to do?" he asked."You could... you could..." Oh God. "Well, now that youre here, you could help us. Plus, thisguy were meeting. Hes another spirit user."Adrian didnt betray his thoughts, but I had a feeling that I had piqued his interest. "Yeah, thatsexactly what I want. To help my girlfriend get her old boyfriend back." He turned away again,and I heard him mutter, "I need two drinks.""Four thirty," I called after him. "Were meeting at four thirty."There was no response, and Adrian melted into the crowd.
  • I returned to the room in a dark cloud that had to be obvious to everyone. Lissa and Eddie weresmart enough not to ask questions, but Victor, of course, had no such reserves."What? Mr. Ivashkov isnt joining us? Id so been looking forward to his company.""Shut up," I said, crossing my arms and leaning against the wall near Eddie. "Dont speak unlessyoure spoken to."The next couple hours dragged by. I was convinced that any minute, Adrian would come backand reluctantly agree to help us. We could use his compulsion if things went bad, even though hecouldnt match Lissa. Surely... surely he loved me enough to come to my aid? He wouldntabandon me? Youre an idiot, Rose. It was my own voice that chastised me in my head, notLissas. Youve given him no reason to help. You just hurt him again and again. Just like you didMason.When four fifteen came around, Eddie looked over at me. "Should we stake out a table?""Yeah." I was restless and upset. I didnt want to stay in this room any longer, trapped with darkfeelings that wouldnt go away. Victor rose from the bed, stretching as though getting up from arelaxing nap. Still, I could have sworn there was an eager glint hidden in the depths of his eyes.By all accounts, he and his half-brother were close, though Id seen no indication that Victordisplayed love or loyalty to anyone. Who knew? Maybe somewhere there was true affection forRobert.We formed a sort of protective configuration with me in the front, Eddie in the back, and the twoMoroi between us. I opened the rooms door and came face-to-face with Adrian. His hand wasraised as though hed been about to knock. He arched an eyebrow."Oh, hey," he said. He had the standard laid-back Adrian expression on his face, though his voicewas a bit strained. I knew he wasnt happy about any of this. I could see it in the tight set of hisjaw and agitation in his eyes. Nonetheless, he was putting on a good front for the others, forwhich I was grateful. Most importantly, hed come back. That was what mattered, and I could
  • ignore the scent of alcohol and smoke wreathing him. "So... I hear theres some party going on.Mind if I join you?"I gave him a weak, grateful smile. "Come on."Our group now up to five, we headed down the hall toward the elevator. "I was cleaning up atpoker, you know," Adrian added. "So this better be good.""I dont know if itll be good," I mused. The elevator doors opened. "But I think itll bememorable."We stepped inside, off to see Robert Doru. And what might be Dimitris only salvation. Chapter NineROBERT DORU WAS EASY TO SPOT.It wasnt because he looked like Victor. It wasnt even because of any dramatic running-toward-each-other reunion type thing between him and his brother. Rather, it was Lissas mind thattipped me off. I saw Robert through her eyes, the golden aura of a spirit user lighting up hiscorner of the restaurant like a star. It caught her by surprise, and she stumbled briefly. Spiritusers were too rare a sight for her to be fully used to them. Seeing auras was something she couldtune in or out, and just before "turning his off," she noted that even though his had the brilliantgold she saw in Adrian, there was also a feel of instability to it. Sparks of other colors flashedthere too, but they trembled and flickered. She wondered if it was a mark of spirits insanitysetting in.His eyes lit up as Victor approached the table, but the two didnt hug or touch. Victor simply satdown beside his brother. The rest of us stood there awkwardly for a moment. The whole situationwas too weird. But it was the reason wed come, and after several more seconds, my friends and Ijoined the brothers at the table.
  • "Victor..." breathed Robert, eyes wide. Robert might have had some of the Dashkov facialfeatures, but his eyes were brown, not green. His hands toyed with a napkin. "I cant believe it....Ive wanted to see you for so long...."Victors voice was gentle, as it had been on the phone, as if he were talking to a child. "I know,Robert. I missed you too.""Are you staying? Can you come back and stay with me?" Part of me wanted to snap that thatwas a ridiculous idea, but the desperation in Roberts voice sparked a tiny bit of pity in me. Iremained silent, simply watching the drama before me unfold. "Id hide you. Itd be great. Justthe two of us."Victor hesitated. He wasnt stupid. Despite my vague claims on the plane, he knew the odds ofme letting him go were nonexistent. "I dont know," he said quietly. "I dont know."The waiters arrival jolted us out of our haze, and we all ordered drinks. Adrian ordered a gin andtonic and wasnt even carded. I wasnt sure if it was because he looked twenty-one or wasconvincing enough with spirit. Regardless, I wasnt thrilled about it. Alcohol muted spirit. Wewere in a precarious situation, and I would have liked him at full strength. Of course, consideringhed been drinking earlier, it probably didnt matter now.After the waiter left, Robert seemed to notice the rest of us. His eyes passed over Eddie quickly,sharpened at Lissa and Adrian, and lingered on me for a long time. I stiffened, not liking thescrutiny. He finally turned back to his brother."Who have you brought, Victor?" Robert still had that oblivious, scattered air to him but it waslit with suspicion now. Fear and paranoia. "Who are these children? Two spirit users and..." Hisgaze fell on me again. He was reading my aura. "One of the shadow-kissed?"For a moment, I was astonished at his use of the term. Then I remembered what Mark, Oksanashusband, had told me. Robert had once been bonded to a dhampir--and that dhampir had died,drastically speeding up the deterioration of Roberts mind.
  • "Theyre friends," said Victor smoothly. "Friends whod like to talk to you and ask you somequestions."Robert frowned. "Youre lying. I can tell. And they dont consider you a friend. Theyre tense.They keep their distance from you."Victor didnt deny the friend claim. "Nonetheless, they need your help, and I promised it to them.It was the price for me being allowed to visit you.""You shouldnt have made promises for me." Roberts napkin was now in shreds. I kind ofwanted to give him mine."But didnt you want to see me?" asked Victor winningly. His tone was warm, his smile almostgenuine.Robert looked troubled. Confused. I was again reminded of a child and was starting to have mydoubts that this guy had ever transformed a Strigoi.He was spared an answer yet again when our drinks arrived. None of us had even picked up ourmenus, much to the waiters obvious annoyance. He left, and I opened mine without really seeingit.Victor then introduced us to Robert, as formally as he might at any diplomatic function. Prisonhadnt dulled his sense of royal etiquette. Victor gave first names only. Robert turned back to me,that frown still on his face, and glanced between Lissa and me. Adrian had said that wheneverwe were together, our auras showed that we were linked."A bond... Ive almost forgotten what it was like... but Alden. Ive never forgotten Alden..." Hiseyes grew dreamy and almost vacant. He was reliving a memory.
  • "Im sorry," I said, surprised to hear the sympathy in my words. This was hardly the harshinterrogation Id envisioned. "I can only imagine what it must have been like... losing him...."The dreamy eyes grew sharp and hard. "No. You cannot. Its like nothing you can imagine.Nothing. Right now... right now... you have the world. A universe of senses beyond those ofothers, an understanding of another person that no one can have. To lose that... to have thatripped away... it would make you wish for death."Wow. Robert was pretty good at killing conversation, and we all kind of sat there hoping thewaiter would return this time. When he did, we all made halfhearted attempts at ordering food--except Robert--most of us deciding on the spot. The restaurant served Asian cuisine, and Iordered the first thing I saw on the menu: an egg roll sampler.With food ordered, Victor continued taking the firm hand with Robert that I seemed incapable ofmanaging."Will you help them? Will you answer their questions?"I had a feeling that Victor was pushing Robert on this not so much as a way to pay back usrescuing him, but rather because Victors scheming nature was dying to know everyones secretsand motivations.Robert sighed. Whenever he looked at Victor, there was such a strong expression of devotionand even idol worship. Robert probably couldnt refuse his brother anything. He was the perfecttype to play into Victors plans, and I realized I should possibly be grateful that Robert hadgrown unstable. If hed been in full control of his powers, Victor would never have bothered withLissa last time. He would have already had his own private spirit wielder to use however hewanted.
  • "What do you want to know?" asked Robert blearily. He addressed me, apparently recognizingmy leadership.I glanced at my friends for moral support and received none. Neither Lissa nor Adrian approvedof this mission in the first place, and Eddie still didnt know its purpose. I swallowed, steelingmyself, and directed my full attention to Robert."We heard you freed a Strigoi once. That you were able to convert him--or her--back to theiroriginal state."Surprise flashed on Victors usually composed face. He certainly hadnt expected this."Where did you hear this?" demanded Robert."From a couple I met in Russia. Their names are Mark and Oksana.""Mark and Oksana..." Again, Roberts gaze slipped away for a moment. I had a feeling thishappened a lot, that he didnt spend much time in reality. "I didnt know they were still together.""They are. Theyre doing really great." I needed him back in the present. "Is it true? Did you dowhat they said? Is it possible?"Roberts responses were always preceded by a pause. "Her.""Huh?""It was a woman. I freed her."
  • I gasped in spite of myself, hardly daring to process his words."Youre lying." It was Adrian who spoke, his tone harsh.Robert glanced at him with an expression amused and scornful. "And who are you to say that?How can you tell? Youve bruised and abused your powers so much, its a wonder you can eventouch the magic anymore. And all these things you do to yourself... it doesnt truly help, does it?Spirits punishment still affects you... soon you wont be able to tell reality from dream...."The words stunned Adrian for a moment, but he kept going. "I dont need any physical signs tosee that youre lying. I know you are because what youre describing is impossible. Theres noway to save a Strigoi. When theyre gone, theyre gone. Theyre dead. Undead.Forever .""That which is dead doesnt always stay dead...." Roberts words werent directed at Adrian. Theywere spoken to me. I shivered."How? How did you do it?""With a stake. She was killed with a stake, and in doing so, was brought back to life.""Okay," I said. "That is a lie. Ive killed plenty of Strigoi with stakes, and believe me, they staydead.""Not just any stake." Roberts fingers danced along the edge of his glass. "A special stake.""A stake charmed with spirit," said Lissa suddenly.
  • He lifted his eyes to her and smiled. It was a creepy smile. "Yes. You are a clever, clever girl. Aclever, gentle girl.Gentle and kind. I can see it in your aura."I stared off at the table, my mind in overdrive. A stake charmed with spirit. Silver stakes werecharmed with the four main Moroi elements: earth, air, water, and fire. It was that infusion of lifethat destroyed the undead force within a Strigoi. With our recent discovery of how to charmobjects with spirit, infusing a stake had never even occurred to us. Spirit healed. Spirit hadbrought me back from the dead. In joining with the other elements within a stake, was it trulypossible that the twisted darkness that gripped Strigoi could be obliterated, thus restoring thatperson to their rightful state?I was grateful for the foods arrival because my brain was still moving sluggishly. The egg rollsprovided a welcome opportunity to think."Is it really that easy?" I asked at last.Robert scoffed. "Its not easy at all.""But you just said... you just said we need a spirit-charmed stake. And then I kill a Strigoi withit." Or well, not kill. The technicalities were irrelevant.His smile returned. "Not you. You cant do it.""Then who..." I stopped, the rest of my words dying on my lips. "No. No.""The shadow-kissed dont have the gift of life. Only the spirit-blessed," he explained. "Thequestion is: Whos capable of doing it? Gentle Girl or Drunken Sod?" His eyes flicked betweenLissa and Adrian. "My wager would be on Gentle Girl."
  • Those words were what snapped me out of my stunned state. In fact, they were what shatteredthis whole thing, this far-fetched dream of saving Dimitri."No," I repeated. "Even if it was possible--and Im not sure if I believe you--she cant do it. Iwont let her."And in a turn of events almost as astonishing as Roberts revelation, Lissa spun toward me, angerflooding our bond. "And since when can you tell me what I can or cant do?""Since I dont recall you ever taking guardian training and learning to stake a Strigoi," I returnedevenly, trying to keep my voice calm. "You only punched Reed, and that was hard enough."When Avery Lazar had tried to take over Lissas mind, shed sent her shadow-kissed brother todo some dirty work. With my help, Lissa had punched him and kept him away. It had beenbeautifully executed, but shed hated it."I did it, didnt I?" she exclaimed."Liss, throwing a punch is nothing like staking a Strigoi. And thats not even counting the factthat you have to get near one in the first place. You think you could get in range before one bityou or snapped your neck? No.""Ill learn." The determination in her voice and mind was admirable, but it took guardiansdecades to learn what we did--and plenty still got killed.Adrian and Eddie looked uncomfortable in the midst of our bickering, but Victor and Robertseemed both intrigued and amused. I didnt like that. We werent here for their entertainment.I tried to deflect the dangerous topic by turning back to Robert. "If a spirit user brought back aStrigoi, then that person would become shadow-kissed." I didnt point out the obvious conclusionto Lissa. Part of what had driven Avery crazy (aside from normal spirit usage) had been bonding
  • with more than one person. Doing so created a very unstable situation that rapidly led all peopleinvolved into darkness and insanity.Roberts eyes grew dreamy as he stared beyond me. "Bonds form when someone dies--whentheir soul has actually left and moved onto the world of the dead. Bringing it back is what makesthem shadow-kissed. Deaths mark is upon them." His gaze suddenly snapped onto me. "Just as itis on you."I refused to avoid his eyes, despite the chill his words sent through me. "Strigoi are dead. Savingone would mean its soul was brought back from the world of the dead too.""No," he argued. "Their souls do not move on. Their souls linger... neither in this world nor thenext. Its wrong and unnatural. Its what makes them what they are. Killing or saving a Strigoisends the soul back to a normal state. There is no bond.""Then theres no danger," Lissa said to me."Aside from a Strigoi killing you," I pointed out."Rose--""Well finish this conversation later." I gave her a hard look. We held each others gazes amoment, and then she turned to Robert. There was still an obstinacy in the bond I didnt like."How do you charm the stake?" she asked him. "Im still learning."I again started to chastise her and then thought better of it. Maybe Robert was wrong. Maybe allit actually took to convert a Strigoi was a spirit-infused stake. He only thought a spirit user had to
  • do it because he had done it. Allegedly. Besides, Id much rather Lissa preoccupy herself withcharming than fighting. If the charm part sounded too hard, she might have to give up altogether.Robert glanced at me and then Eddie. "One of you must have a stake on you. Ill show you.""You cant take a stake out in public," exclaimed Adrian, in what was a remarkably wiseobservation. "It might be weird for humans, but its still obvious that its a weapon.""Hes right," Eddie said."We could go back to the room after dinner," said Victor.He had that perfectly pleasant and bland look on his face. I studied him, hoping my expressionshowed my distrust. Even with her zeal, I could sense the hesitation in Lissa too. She wasnt keenon following any suggestion of Victors. Wed seen in the past how desperately far Victor wouldgo in attempting to fulfill his plans. Hed convinced his own daughter to turn Strigoi and helphim escape jail. For all we knew, he was planning the same for--"Thats it," I gasped, feeling my eyes go wide as I stared at him."Thats what?" Victor asked."Thats why you had Natalie turn. You thought... you knew about this. What Robert had done.You were going to use her Strigoi strength and then have him turn her back."Victors already pale face went paler, and he seemed to age before our eyes. His smug lookdisappeared, and he looked away. "Natalie is dead and long gone," he said stiffly. "Theres nopoint in discussing her."
  • Some of us made an attempt to eat after that, but my egg roll seemed tasteless now. Lissa and Iwere thinking the same thing. Among all of Victors sins, Id always considered him convincinghis own daughter to turn Strigoi to be the most awful. It was what had really sealed the deal forme about him being a monster. Suddenly, I was forced to reevaluate things--forced to reevaluatehim. If hed known he could bring her back, it made what he had done terrible--but not asterrible. He was still evil in my mind, no question. But if he had believed he could bring Natalieback, then that meant he believed in Roberts power. There was still no way I was letting Lissanear a Strigoi, but this incredible tale had become slightly more credible. I couldnt let it gowithout further investigation."We can go up to the room after this," I said at last. "But not for long." My words were to Victorand Robert. Robert seemed to have faded into his own world again, but Victor nodded.I gave Eddie a quick glance and got a curt nod of a different sort from him. He understood therisk in taking the brothers to a private place. Eddie was telling me he would be extravigilant--notthat he wasnt already.By the time we finished dinner, Eddie and I were both rigid and tense. He walked near Robert,and I stayed by Victor. We kept Lissa and Adrian between the brothers. Yet, even keeping close,it was hard as we cut through the crowded casino. People stopped in our path, walked around us,through us... it was chaos. Twice, our group got split by oblivious tourists. We werent too farfrom the elevators, but I was getting uneasy about the possibility of Victor or Robert running offthrough the mob of people"We need to get out of this crowd," I shouted over to Eddie.He gave me another of his quick nods and took an abrupt left that caught me by surprise. Isteered Victor in that same direction, and Lissa and Adrian sidestepped to keep up with us. I waspuzzled until I saw that we were approaching a hall with an EMERGENCY EXIT sign on it.Away from the busy casino, the noise level dimmed.
  • "Figure there are probably stairs here," Eddie explained."Crafty guardian." I flashed him a smile.Another turn showed us a janitorial closet on our right and ahead of us: a door with a symbol forstairs. The door appeared to lead both outside and to upper floors."Brilliant," I said."Youre, like, on the tenth floor," pointed out Adrian. It was the first time hed spoken in a while."Nothing like a little exercise to--damn." I came to an abrupt halt in front of the door. It had asmall warning sign saying that an alarm would go off if the door was opened. "Figures.""Sorry," said Eddie, like he was personally responsible."Not your fault," I said, turning. "Back we go." Wed have to take our chances in the crowd.Maybe the roundabout detour had tired Victor and Robert out enough to make escapeunappealing. Neither of them was that young anymore, and Victor was still in bad shape.Lissa was too tense to think much about being led around, but Adrian gave me a look that clearlysaid he thought this traipsing was a waste of his time. Of course, he thought this whole Robertthing was a waste of time. I was honestly surprised he was coming with us at all back to theroom. I would have expected him to stay in the casino with his cigarettes and another drink.Eddie, leading our group, took a few steps back toward the casino down the hallway. And then ithit me.
  • "Stop!" I screamed.He responded instantly, coming to a halt in the narrow space. A bit of confusion followed. Victorstumbled into Eddie in surprise, and then Lissa stumbled into Victor. Instinct made Eddie reachfor his stake, but mine was already out. Id grabbed it as soon as the nausea had swept me.There were Strigoi between us and the casino. Chapter TenAND ONE OF THEM... ONE OF THEM..."No," I breathed, even as I sprang toward the one closest to me--a woman. There appeared to bethree Strigoi around us.Eddie was in motion too, and both of us were trying to shove the Moroi behind us. They didntneed much urging. At the sight of Strigoi, the Moroi had begun to back up--creating sort of abottleneck. Between Eddies instant reflexes and the Moroi panic, I was pretty sure no one hadnoticed what I already had spotted.Dimitri was among them.No, no, no, I said, this time to myself. Hed warned me. Over and over, hed said in his letters thatas soon as I was out of the safety of the wards, he would be coming for me. Id believed him andyet... seeing the reality of it was a totally different thing. It had been three months, but in thatinstant, a million memories ran through my mind in crystal clear sharpness. My captivity withDimitri. The way his mouth--so, so warm, despite his cold skin--had kissed mine. The feel of hisfangs pressing into my neck and the sweet bliss that followed...He looked exactly the same too, with that chalky white pallor and red-ringed eyes that soconflicted with the soft, chin-length brown hair and otherwise gorgeous lines of his face. He
  • even had a leather duster on. It had to be a new one, seeing as his previous coat had gotten prettytorn up in our last fight on the bridge. Where did he keep getting them?"Get out!" I yelled. My words were to the Moroi, even as my stake bit into the female Strigoisheart. The momentary confusion with all of us in the hall had been more of a detriment to herthan me. I got a good line of sight on her, and it was clear that she hadnt expected me to be sofast. Id killed a lot of Strigoi because theyd underestimated me.Eddie didnt have my luck. He stumbled when Victor shoved past him, allowing the otherStrigoi--a guy--near the front to backhand Eddie against the wall. Still, that was the kind of thingwe faced all the time, and Eddie responded beautifully. He immediately came back from the hit,and with the Moroi out of the way now, Eddie was able to lunge toward the Strigoi and engagehim fully.And me? My attention was on Dimitri.I stepped over the fallen Strigoi without even looking at her. Dimitri had hovered near the back,sending his minions into the front lines of battle. Maybe it was because I knew Dimitri so well,but I suspected he wasnt surprised that Id take out the one so quickly and that Eddie was givingthe other a tough time. I doubted Dimitri cared whether they lived or died. They were justdistractions for him to get to me."I told you," said Dimitri, eyes both amused and sharp. He was watching my every move, eachof us subconsciously mirroring the other as we waited for an opening to attack. "I told you Idfind you.""Yeah," I said, trying to ignore the grunts of Eddie and the other Strigoi. Eddie could take him. Iknew he could. "I got the memos."A ghost of a smile curled up Dimitris lips, showing the fangs that somehow triggered a mix ofboth longing and loathing in me. Instantly, I shoved those feelings aside. Id hesitated before with
  • Dimitri and nearly died because of it. Id refused to let it happen again, and the adrenalinepumping through my body served as a good reminder that this was a do-or-die situation.He made the first move, but I dodged it--almost having sensed it coming. That was the problemwith us. We knew each other too well--knew each others moves too well. Of course, that hardlymeant we were an even match. Even in life, hed had more experience than me, and his Strigoiabilities tipped the scale."Yet here you are," he said, still smiling. "Foolishly stepping outside when you should havestayed in the safety of Court. I couldnt believe it when my spies told me."I said nothing, instead attempting a swipe with my stake. He saw that coming too andsidestepped it. His having spies didnt surprise me--even in the daytime. He controlled a networkof Strigoi and humans alike, and Id known he had eyes and ears observing Court. The questionwas: How the hell had he gotten into this hotel in the middle of the day? Even with humanwatchers at the airport or monitoring credit cards as Adrian had done, Dimitri and his Strigoifriends should have had to wait until nightfall to get here.No, not necessarily, I realized a moment later. Strigoi occasionally had work-arounds. Trucksand vans with dark, completely sealed cabins.Underground entrances. Moroi wanting to casino-jump from the Witching Hour knew about secret tunnels connecting certain buildings. Dimitriwould have known about all this too. If hed been waiting for me to come outside of wards, hewould have done whatever it took to get to me. I knew better than anyone else how resourcefulhe was.I also knew he was trying to distract me with talking."And strangest of all," he continued, "you didnt come alone. You brought Moroi. Youve alwaystaken risks with your own life, but I didnt expect you to be so hasty with theirs."
  • Something occurred to me then. Aside from the faint hum of the casino on the other end of thehallway and the sounds of our fight, everything else was silent. We were missing an importantnoise. Say, like, the alarm from a fire door."Lissa!" I yelled. "Get the hell out of here! Get them all out of here."She should have known better. They all should have known better. That door led to the upperfloors--and outdoors. The sun was still out. It didnt matter if the alarm brought hotel securitydown on us. Hell, that might scare the Strigoi off. What mattered was that the Moroi fled tosafety.But a quick check of my bond told me the problem. Lissa was frozen. Stunned. Shed suddenlyseen who I was fighting, and the shock of it was too much. Knowing Dimitri was a Strigoi wasone thing. Seeing it--really, really seeing it--well, that was different. I knew from personalexperience. Even after being prepared, his appearance still unnerved me. She was blindsided,unable to think or move.It only took me a heartbeat to assess her feelings, but in a fight with a Strigoi, a single secondcould be the difference between life and death. Dimitris chatter had worked, and although Iwatched him and thought I had my guard up, he got through and shoved me against the wall,hands pinning my arms so painfully that I lost my grip on the stake.He put his face right up to mine, so close that our foreheads touched. "Roza..." he murmured. Hisbreath was warm and sweet against my skin. It seemed like it should have smelled like death ordecay, but it didnt. "Why? Why did you have to be so difficult? We could have spent eternitytogether..."My heart thundered in my chest. I was afraid, terrified of the death that I knew had to be secondsaway. And at the same time, I was filled with sorrow over having lost him. Seeing the features ofhis face, hearing that same accented voice that even now wrapped around me like velvet... I feltmy heart breaking all over again. Why? Why had this happened to us? Why was the universe socruel?
  • I managed to flip the switch again, once more shutting out the fact that this was Dimitri. Wewere predator and prey--and I was in danger of being eaten."Sorry," I said through gritted teeth, shoving hard--and failing--to break his grip. "My eternitydoesnt involve being part of the undead mafia.""I know," he said. I could have sworn there was sadness in his face but later convinced myself Imust have imagined it. "Eternity will be lonely without you."A piercing shriek suddenly rang in my ears. Both of us winced. Noises intended to startlehumans were hell on sensitive hearing like we had. Yet I couldnt help but feel relief. The firedoor. Finally, those idiots--and yes, I had no qualms about calling my friends idiots when theywere acting that way--had left the building. I felt sunlight through the bond and took comfort inthat as Dimitris fangs neared the artery that would spill the lifes blood from my neck.I hoped the alarm would distract him, but he was too good. I struggled once more, hoping I coulduse surprise on him, but it was to no avail. What did surprise him was Eddies stake plunging intothe side of his stomach.Dimitri snarled in pain and let go of me, turning on Eddie. Eddies face was hard, unblinking. Ifseeing Dimitri fazed him, my friend didnt show it. For all I knew, Eddie wasnt even registeringthis as Dimitri. Probably all he saw was a Strigoi. It was the way we were trained. See monsters,not people.Dimitris attention was off me for the moment. He wanted to draw out my death. Eddie wassimply an annoyance he needed to rid us of so that he could continue the game.Eddie and Dimitri engaged in a dance similar to the one Id been in with Dimitri earlier, exceptthat Eddie didnt know Dimitris moves like I did. So Eddie wasnt able to completely avoidDimitri grabbing him by the shoulder and shoving him to the wall. The maneuver had been
  • intended to crush Eddies skull, but Eddie managed to shift enough so that it was his body thattook the brunt of the impact. It still hurt, but he was alive.All of this took place in milliseconds. And in those fleeting moments, my perspective shifted.When Dimitri had been looming over me, about to bite me, I had managed to overcome thatimpulse to think of him as Dimitri, the person Id once known and loved. Continually forced intoa victim position, with my life about to end, I had kept kicking myself into fight-fight-fightmode.Now, watching someone else battle Dimitri... seeing Eddies stake snake out at him... well,suddenly, I lost that cool objectivity. I remembered why Id come here. I remembered what wedjust learned from Robert.Fragile. It was still all so fragile. Id sworn to myself that if we reached a moment where Dimitriwas about to kill me and I hadnt learned more about saving Strigoi, I would do it. I would killhim. And this was my chance. Between Eddie and me, we could take Dimitri down. We couldend this evil state, just as hed once wanted.Yet... less than a half hour ago, Id been given a small piece of hope that a Strigoi could be saved.True, that part about a spirit user doing it was absurd, but Victor had believed. And if someonelike him had believed...I couldnt do it. Dimitri couldnt die. Not yet.I shot out with my stake, a hard strike that raked the silver point against the back of Dimitrishead. He let out a roar of rage and managed to turn and push me off while still fending Eddieaway. Dimitri was that good. But Eddies stake was getting closer to Dimitris heart, and myfriends gaze was unwavering, intent on his kill.Dimitris attention flitted between the two of us, and in one small lapse--only half a breath long--I saw Eddie get his stake in the zone, ready to take a shot at Dimitris heart. A shot that lookedlike it might succeed where mine had failed.
  • And that was why, in one smooth motion, I struck out with my stake, swiping it across Dimitrisface and knocking Eddies arm aside as I did. It was a beautiful face. I hated to mar it but knewDimitri would heal. As I made that attack, I pushed past him, shoving into Eddie so that he and Istumbled toward the fire door that was still shrieking its warning. Eddies stony face registeredsurprise, and for a moment we were deadlocked: me pushing him to the door and him pushingback toward Dimitri. I saw the hesitation, though. The positioning was off, and Eddie was on theverge of shoving me into a Strigoi, which his training wouldnt allow.Dimitri was already seizing the opportunity, though. His hand reached out and grabbed myshoulder, trying to jerk me back. Eddie caught hold of my arm and pulled me forward. I cried outin surprise and pain. It felt like they were going to rip me in two. Dimitri was by far thestrongest, but even stuck in the middle, my weight played a role, and I lent my force to Eddies,which helped us gain some ground. Still, it was slow going. Like walking in honey. For each stepI managed forward, Dimitri dragged me back.But Eddie and I were making slow--and very, very painful--progress toward the wailing door. Afew moments later, I heard the clatter of feet and voices. "Security," grunted Eddie, giving me atug."Shit," I said."You cant win," Dimitri hissed. Hed managed to get both hands on my shoulders now and wasoverpowering us."Oh yeah? Were about to have the entire Luxor Attack Squad here.""Were about to have a pile of bodies here. Humans," he said dismissively.Those humans reached us. Im not sure what their impressions were. Some guy attackingteenagers? They shouted about us all letting go and facing them, directions the three of us
  • ignored in our epic tug-of-war match. Then they must have laid hands on Dimitri. He was stillgripping me, but his hold slackened enough that one huge pull from Eddie and a near-leap on mypart broke me free. Eddie and I didnt even look back, though the security guards were nowshouting at us too.They werent the only ones shouting. Just before I pushed open the door, I heard Dimitri callingto me. There was laughter in his voice. "Its not over, Roza. Do you really think theres anywhereyou can go in this world where I cant find you?" The same warning, always the same warning.I did my best to ignore the fear those words inspired. Eddie and I burst into smoggy desert air, aswell as sunshine that was still hanging in there, despite being early evening. We were in theLuxors parking lot--which wasnt crowded enough for us to hide in. With no spokencommunication, he and I tore off toward the busy Strip, knowing our physical abilities wouldsurpass those of any human pursuers and let us get lost in the mobs of people.It worked. I never saw how many followed us. My guess was the security staff were devotingtheir attention to the tall guy killing people in their hotel. The voices shouting after us faded, andEddie and I finally slowed to a stop in front of New York-New York, and again, without eventalking, we immediately turned inside the hotel. It had a twisted layout and was more crowdedthan the Luxor, and we easily blended in until we could find an empty spot of wall on the far sideof the hotels casino.The run had been hard even for us, and it took us a moment to catch our breath as we stood there.I knew things were serious when Eddie finally turned on me, and anger lit his features. Eddiewas always the picture of calm and control, ever since his first abduction by Strigoi last year. Ithad toughened him, made him more determined to face any challenge. But oh, was he mad at menow."What the hell was that?" exclaimed Eddie. "You let him go!"I put on my best tough face, but he seemed to be outdoing me today. "What, did you miss thepart where I was slashing him with my stake?"
  • "I had his heart! I had a shot, and you stopped me!""Security was coming. We didnt have time. We had to get out of there, and we couldnt let themsee us do the killing.""I dont think any of them are left to report seeing anything," Eddie replied evenly. He seemed tobe trying to regain his composure. "Dimitri left a pile of corpses there. You know it. People diedbecause you wouldnt let me stake him."I flinched, realizing Eddie was right. It should have ended there. I hadnt gotten a good look atthe number of security guards. How many had died? It wasnt relevant. Only the fact thatinnocent people had died mattered. Even one was too many. And it was my fault.My silence caused Eddie to press his advantage. "How could you of all people forget that lesson?I know he used to be your instructor--used to be. But hes not the same. They drilled that into usover and over. Dont hesitate. Dont think of him as a real person.""I love him," I blurted out, without meaning to. Eddie hadnt known. Only a handful of peopleknew about my romantic relationship with Dimitri and what had happened in Siberia."What?" Eddie exclaimed with a gasp. His outrage had transformed to shock."Dimitri... hes more than my instructor..."Eddie continued staring at me for several heavy seconds. "Was," he said at last."Huh?"
  • "He was more than your instructor. You loved him." Eddies momentary confusion was gone. Hewas back to hard guardian now, no sympathy. "Im sorry, but its in the past, whatever wasbetween you. You have to know that. The person you loved is gone. The guy we just saw? Notthe same."I slowly shook my head. "I... I know. I know its not him. I know hes a monster, but we can savehim... if we can do what Robert was telling us about...."Eddies eyes widened, and for a moment, he was dumbstruck. "Thats what this is about? Rose,thats ridiculous! You cant believe that. Strigoi are dead. Theyre gone to us. Robert and Victorwere feeding you a bunch of crap."Now I grew surprised. "Then why are you even here? Why have you stuck with us?"He threw his hands up in exasperation. "Because youre my friend. I stayed with you through allof this... breaking out Victor, listening to his crazy brother... because I knew you needed me. Youall did, to help keep you safe. I thought you had a real reason for getting Victor out--and that youwere going to return him. Does it sound crazy? Yeah, but thats normal for you. Youve alwayshad good reasons for what you do." He sighed. "But this... this is crossing a line. Letting Strigoigo in order to chase some idea--some idea that couldnt possibly work--is ten times worse thanwhat we did with Victor. A hundred times worse. Every day Dimitri walks the world is anotherday that people are going to die."I collapsed against the wall and closed my eyes, feeling sick to my stomach. Eddie was right. Ihad screwed up. Id promised myself that I would kill Dimitri if I faced him before we couldpursue Roberts solution. It all should have ended today... but I had choked up. Again.I opened my eyes and straightened up, needing to find a new purpose before I burst into tears inthe middle of this casino. "We have to find the others. Theyre out there unprotected."
  • It was probably the only thing that could have stopped Eddies scolding just then. Instinctual dutykicked in. Protect Moroi."Can you tell where Lissas at?"My bond had kept me connected to her during our escape, but I hadnt allowed myself anydeeper probing than confirming she was alive and okay. I expanded the link a little further now."Across the street.At MGM." Id seen the ginormous hotel when we ran into this one but hadntrealized Lissa was there. Now I could feel her, hiding out in a crowd like us, scared but notinjured. I would have rather she and the others opted to hang out in the sun, but instinct haddriven her to the shelter of walls.Eddie and I spoke no more about Dimitri as we headed out and crossed the busy road. The skywas turning peach, but I still felt secure out there. Far more secure than in the Luxors hallway.With the bond, I could always find Lissa, and without any hesitation, I led Eddie through MGMstwists and turns--honestly, the layout of these places just got more and more confusing--until wesaw Lissa and Adrian standing near a row of slot machines. He was smoking. She spotted me,sprinted over, and threw her arms around me."Oh my God. I was so scared. I didnt know what had happened to you guys. I hate that one-waybond."I forced a smile for her. "Were fine.""In a bruised kind of way," mused Adrian, strolling over. I didnt doubt it. In the adrenaline of afight, it was easy to not notice injuries and pain. Later, when the battle lust faded, you started torealize just what youd put your body through.I was so grateful to see Lissa okay that I missed what Eddie had already noticed. "You guys,where are Victor and Robert?"
  • Lissas happy face crumpled, and even Adrian looked grim. "Damn it," I said, needing noexplanation.Lissa nodded, eyes wide and distraught. "We lost them." Chapter ElevenWELL. HOW PERFECT.It took us a while to decide our next course of action. We tossed around a few feeble ideas totrack Robert and Victor, all of which we eventually shot down. Roberts phone was a cell, andwhile the CIA could trace those kinds of things, we certainly couldnt. Even if Roberts addresswas listed in the phone book, I knew Victor wouldnt have let them go back there. And whileAdrian and Lissa could spot a spirit users aura, we could hardly go wandering aimlessly in a cityand expect to find something.No, we were out of luck with those two. There was nothing to be done now but head back toCourt and face whatever punishment awaited us. We--I--had screwed up.With sunset approaching--and seeing as we no longer had a known criminal to get us in trouble--my group glumly decided to head to the Witching Hour to make our travel plans. Lissa and I hadthe potential to be recognized over there, but runaway girls werent quite in the same category asfugitive traitors. We decided to roll the dice (no pun intended) and hang around guardians ratherthan risk more Strigoi attacks before we could get out of Vegas.The Witching Hour was no different from any of the other casinos wed been to--unless youknew what to look for. Humans there were too interested in the allure of the games and glitz tonotice that a lot of the other patrons were uniformly tall, slim, and pale. As for the dhampirs?Humans couldnt tell that we werent human. It was only the uncanny sense Moroi and dhampirshad that let us know who was who.Sprinkled throughout the cheering, chattering, and--at times--wailing crowd were guardians. Asin demand as guardians were, only a handful could be allocated full-time to a place like this.Fortunately, their numbers were reinforced by the wealthy and powerful whod come to play.
  • Excited Moroi whooped over slot machines or roulette while silent, watchful guardians hoveredbehind them, keeping an eye on everything. No Strigoi would come here."What now?" asked Lissa, almost yelling over the noise. It was the first time any of us hadspoken since deciding to go here. Wed come to a halt near some blackjack tables, right in thethick of everything.I sighed. My mood was so dark, I didnt even need any spirit side effects. I lost Victor, I lostVictor. My own mental accusations were on an endless loop."We find their business center and book tickets out of here," I said. "Depending on how longuntil we can catch a flight, we might have to get a room again."Adrians eyes were scanning the action around us, lingering longest on one of the many bars."Wouldnt kill us to spend a little time here."I snapped. "Really? After everything thats happened, thats all you can think about?"His enraptured gaze turned back to me and became a frown. "There are cameras here. Peoplewho may recognize you. Getting hard proof that you were in this casino and not Alaska is a goodthing.""True," I admitted. I think Adrians typical blase air was masking discomfort. Aside fromlearning why Id really come to Las Vegas, hed also run into Strigoi--Dimitri among them. Thatwas never an easy experience for any Moroi. "Though weve got no alibi for when we wereactually in Alaska.""So long as Victor doesnt get himself spotted around here, no ones going to make theconnection." Adrians voice became bitter. "Which really shows how stupid they all are."
  • "We helped put Victor away," said Lissa. "No one would think wed be crazy enough to let himout."Eddie, staying silent, gave me a pointed look."Then its settled," said Adrian. "Somebody go book us tickets. Im going to get a drink and trymy hand at some games. The universe owes me some good luck.""Ill get the tickets," said Lissa, scanning a sign that pointed out the directions for the pool,restrooms--and business center."Ill go with you," said Eddie. Whereas before his expression had been accusatory, he nowseemed to be avoiding my eyes altogether."Fine," I said, crossing my arms. "Let me know when youre done, and well find you." That wasto Lissa, meaning shed tell me through the bond.Convinced he was free, Adrian headed straight for the bar, me trailing after him."A Tom Collins," he told the Moroi bartender. It was like Adrian had a mental cocktaildictionary in his head and just checked them off one by one. I almost never saw him drink thesame thing twice."You want it spiked?" the bartender asked. He wore a crisp white shirt and black bow tie andhardly appeared older than me.Adrian made a face. "No."
  • The bartender shrugged and turned around to make the drink. "Spiked" was Moroi code forputting a shot of blood into the drink. There were a couple of doors behind the bar, ones thatprobably led to feeders. Glancing down the bar, I could see happy, laughing Moroi with red-tinged drinks. Some liked the thought of having blood with their alcohol. Most--like Adrian,apparently--wouldnt take blood unless it was "straight from the source." It supposedly didnttaste the same.While we waited, an older Moroi standing next to Adrian glanced over at me and nodded withapproval. "You got yourself a good one," he told Adrian. "Young, but thats the best way." Theguy, who was either drinking red wine or pure blood, jerked his head toward the others standingat the bar. "Most of these are used and washed-up."I followed his shrug, even through there was no need. Interspersed among the humans and Moroiwere several dhampir women, dressed very glamorously in silk and velvet dresses that left littleto the imagination. Most were older than me. Those who werent had a weary look in their eyes,despite their flirtatious laughter. Blood whores. I glared at the Moroi."Dont you dare talk about them like that, or Ill smash that wineglass in your face."The guys eyes widened, and he looked at Adrian. "Feisty.""You have no idea," said Adrian. The bartender returned with the Tom Collins. "Shes had kindof a bad day."The asshole Moroi guy didnt look back at me. He apparently didnt take my threat nearly asseriously as he should have. "Everyones having kind of a bad day. You hear the news?"Adrian looked relaxed and amused as he sipped his drink, but standing so close to him, I felt himstiffen a little. "What news?"
  • "Victor Dashkov. You know, that guy who kidnapped the Dragomir girl and was plotting againstthe queen? He escaped."Adrians eyebrows rose. "Escaped? Thats crazy. I heard he was at some maximum-securityplace.""He was. No one really knows what happened. There were supposedly humans involved... andthen the story gets weird.""How weird?" I asked.Adrian slipped an arm around me, which I suspected was a silent message to let him do thetalking. Whether that was because he believed that was "proper" blood whore behavior orbecause he was worried Id punch the guy, I couldnt say."One of the guards was in on it--though he claims he was being controlled. He also convenientlysays its all a haze and he cant remember much. I heard it from some royals who are helping withthe investigation."Adrian laughed, taking down a big gulp of his drink. "That is convenient. Sounds like an insidejob to me. Victord have a lot of money. Easy enough to bribe a guard. Thats what I thinkhappened."There was a pleasant smoothness to Adrians voice, and as a slightly dopey smile came over theother guys face, I realized Adrian had pulled a little compulsion. "I bet youre right.""You should tell your royal friends," added Adrian. "An inside job."The guy nodded eagerly. "I will."
  • Adrian held his gaze a few moments more and then finally glanced down to the Tom Collins.The glaze-eyed look faded from the man, but I knew Adrians order to spread the "inside job"story would stick. Adrian gulped down the rest of the drink and set the empty glass on the bar.He was about to speak again when something across the room caught his attention. The Moroiman noticed too, and I followed both of their gazes to see what had them both so starstruck.I groaned. Women, of course. At first I thought they were dhampirs since my kind seemed to bemaking up most of the eye candy here. A double take revealed a surprise: The women wereMoroi. Moroi showgirls, to be precise. There were several of them, clad in similar short, low-cutsequined dresses. Only, each one wore a different jewel-toned color: copper, peacock blue...Feathers and rhinestones glittered in their hair, and they smiled and laughed as they passedthrough the gaping crowd, beautiful and sexy in a way different from my race.Which wasnt a surprise. I tended to notice Moroi men ogling dhampir girls more often, simplybecause I was a dhampir. But naturally, Moroi men were attracted to and infatuated with theirown women. It was how their race survived, and though Moroi men might want to fool aroundwith dhampirs, they almost always ended up with their own kind in the end.The showgirls were tall and graceful, and their fresh, brilliant appearances made me think theymust be on their way to a performance. I could just imagine what a glittering display of dancingthey must make. I could appreciate that, but Adrian clearly appreciated it more, judging from hiswide-eyed look. I elbowed him."Hey!"The last of the showgirls disappeared through the casino crowd, off toward a sign that saidTHEATER, just as Id suspected. Adrian looked back at me, turning on a rogue smile."Nothing wrong with looking." He patted my shoulder.
  • The Moroi standing next to him nodded in agreement. "I think I might take in a show today." Heswirled his drink around. "All this Dashkov business and that mess with the Dragomirs... makesme sad for poor Eric. He was a good guy."I put on a dubious look. "You knew Lissas fath--Eric Dragomir?""Sure." The Moroi gestured for a refill. "Ive been a manager here for years. He was here all thetime. Believe me, he had an appreciation for those girls.""Youre lying," I said coolly. "He adored his wife." Id seen Lissas parents together. Even at ayoung age, Id been able to see how crazy in love they were."Im not saying he did anything. Like your boyfriend said, nothing wrong with looking. But a lotof people knew the Dragomir prince liked to party it up wherever he went--especially if therewas female company." The Moroi sighed and lifted his glass. "Damn shame what happened tohim. Heres hoping they catch that Dashkov bastard and leave Erics little girl alone."I didnt like this guys insinuations about Lissas dad and was grateful she wasnt around. Whatmade me uneasy was that wed recently found out Lissas brother Andre had also been kind of aparty boy who fooled around and broke hearts. Did that kind of thing run in the family? WhatAndre had done wasnt right, but there was a big difference between a teenage boys exploits andthose of a married man. I didnt like to admit it, but even the most in-love guys still checked outother women without cheating. Adrian was proof. Still, I didnt think Lissa would like the idea ofher dad flirting around with other women. The truth about Andre had been hard enough, and Ididnt want anything to shatter the angelic memories of her parents.I shot Adrian a look that said listening to this guy any longer really would come down to afistfight. I didnt want to be standing here if Lissa came searching for us. Adrian, always moreastute than he appeared, smiled down at me."Well, my sweet, shall we try our luck? Something tells me youre going to beat the odds--likealways."
  • I cut him a look. "Cute."Adrian winked at me and stood up. "Nice talking to you," he told the Moroi."You too," the man said. The thrall of compulsion was wearing off. "You should dress her better,you know.""Im not interested in putting clothes on her," Adrian called as he steered me away."Watch it," I warned through gritted teeth, "or you might be the one with a wineglass in yourface.""Im playing a part, little dhampir. One thats going to make sure you stay out of trouble." Westopped near the casinos poker room, and Adrian gave me a head-to-toe assessment. "That guywas right about the clothes, though."I gritted my teeth. "I cant believe he said those things about Lissas dad.""Gossip and rumors never go away--you of all people should know that. Doesnt matter if youredead. Besides, that conversation was actually to our--by which I mean your--advantage.Somebody else is probably considering the inside-job theory already. If that guy can help get itaround even more, itll ensure no one even thinks the worlds most dangerous guardian couldhave been involved.""I suppose." Forcibly, I pushed my temper down. I had always been trigger-happy, and I knewfor sure now that the bits of darkness Id gleaned from Lissa in the last twenty-four hours weremaking things worse, as Id feared. I changed the subject, steering to safer ground. "Youre beingpretty nice now, considering how mad you were earlier."
  • "Im not all that happy, but Ive done some thinking," Adrian said."Oh? Care to enlighten me?"Not here. Well talk later. Weve got more important things to worry about.""Like covering up a crime and getting out of this city without being attacked by Strigoi?""No. Like me winning money.""Are you crazy?" Asking Adrian that was never a good idea. "We just escaped a bunch ofbloodthirsty monsters, and all you can think about is gambling?""The fact that were alive means we should live," he argued. "Especially if weve got the time,anyway.""You dont need any more money.""I will if my dad turns me out. Besides, its really about enjoying the game."By "enjoying the game," I soon realized that Adrian meant "cheating." If you considered usingspirit cheating. Because there was so much mental power tied into spirit, its users were very goodat reading people. Victor had been right. Adrian joked and kept ordering drinks, but I could tellhe was paying close attention to the others. And even though he was careful not to say anythingexplicitly, his expressions spoke for him--confident, uncertain, annoyed. Without words, he wasstill able to project compulsion and bluff the other players.
  • "Be right back," I told him, feeling Lissas call.He waved me off, unconcerned. I wasnt worried about his safety either, seeing as there were afew guardians in the room. What concerned me was the possibility some casino official wouldnotice his compulsion and throw us all out. Spirit users wielded it the most strongly, but allvampires had it to a certain extent. Using it was considered immoral, so it was banned amongMoroi. A casino would definitely have reason to be on the lookout for it.The business center turned out to be near the poker room, and I found Lissa and Eddie quickly."Whats the report?" I asked as we walked back."Weve got a flight in the morning," said Lissa. She hesitated. "We could have gone out tonight,but..."She didnt need to finish. After what wed faced today, no one wanted to risk even the slightestchance of running into a Strigoi. Going to the airport would only require a taxi ride, but evenstill, that would mean wed have to risk walking out into the darkness.I shook my head and led them toward the poker room. "You did the right thing. Weve got timeto kill now.... Do you want to get a room and get some sleep?""No." She shivered, and I felt fear in her. "I dont want to leave this crowd. And Im kind ofafraid of what Id dream...."Adrian might be able to act like he didnt care about the Strigoi, but those faces were stillhaunting Lissa--especially Dimitris. "Well," I said, hoping to make her feel better, "staying upwill help get us back on the Courts schedule. You can also watch Adrian get thrown out bycasino security."
  • As Id hoped, watching Adrian cheat with spirit did indeed distract Lissa--so much so that shegrew interested in trying it herself. Great. I urged her to safer games and recapped how Adrianhad planted the idea of an inside job in the Moroi guys head. I left out the part about Lissasfather. The night miraculously passed without incident--either of the Strigoi or security type--anda couple of people even recognized Lissa, which would help our alibi. Eddie didnt speak to methe entire night.We left the Witching Hour in the morning. None of us were happy about losing Victor or theattack, but the casino had soothed us all a little--at least until we got to the airport. At the casino,wed been flooded with Moroi news, insulated from the human world. But while waiting for ourplane, we couldnt help but watch the TVs that seemed to be everywhere.The headline story that night was all about a mass killing over at the Luxor, one that had left noclues for the police. Most of the casino guards involved had died from broken necks, and noother bodies were found. My guess was that Dimitri had tossed his cronies outside, where the sunwould turn them to ash. Meanwhile, Dimitri himself had slipped away, leaving no otherwitnesses behind. Even the cameras had recorded nothing, which didnt surprise me. If I coulddisable surveillance at a prison, Dimitri could certainly manage it at a human hotel.Whatever mood-improvement wed achieved instantly disappeared, and we didnt talk much. Istayed out of Lissas mind because I didnt need her depressed feelings amplifying my own.Wed arranged a direct flight to Philadelphia and would then catch a commuter flight back to theairport near Court. What wed face once there... well, that was probably the least of our concerns.I wasnt worried about Strigoi boarding our plane in the daytime, and without any prisoners towatch, I allowed myself to fall into much-needed sleep. I couldnt remember the last time Idgotten any on this trip. I slept heavily, but my dreams were haunted by the fact that Id let one ofthe Morois most dangerous criminals escape and allowed a Strigoi to walk free and gotten abunch of humans killed. I held none of my friends responsible. This disaster was all on me. Chapter TwelveWHICH WAS CONFIRMED WHEN WE finally stumbled back to the Royal Court.
  • I wasnt the only one in trouble, of course. Lissa was summoned to the queen for chastising,though I knew shed suffer no actual punishment. Not like Eddie and me. We might be out ofschool, but we were technically under the jurisdiction of the official guardians now, which meantwe faced as much trouble as any disobedient employee. Only Adrian escaped any consequences.He was free to do whatever he wanted.And really, my punishment wasnt as bad as it could have been. Honestly, what did I have to loseat this point? My chances of guarding Lissa had already been sketchy, and no one had wanted meas a guardian except Tasha anyway. A crazy Vegas weekend--which was our cover story--washardly enough to dissuade her from taking me on. It was enough, however, to make some ofEddies prospects withdraw their requests for him to be their guardian. Enough still wanted himthat he was in no danger of losing a good position, but I felt horribly guilty. He didnt breathe aword to anyone about what wed done, but each time he looked at me, I could see thecondemnation in his eyes.And I saw a lot of him in the next couple days. It turned out guardians had a system in place todeal with those who were disobedient."What you did was so irresponsible that you might as well be back in school. Hell, elementaryschool, even."We were in one of the offices in the guardians headquarters, being yelled at by Hans Croft, theguy in charge of all the guardians at Court and someone who was instrumental in guardianassignments. He was a dhampir in his early fifties, with a bushy gray-and-white mustache. Hewas also an asshole. The scent of cigar smoke always encircled him. Eddie and I were sittingmeekly before him while he paced with his hands behind his back."You could have gotten the last Dragomir killed--not to mention the Ivashkov boy. How do youthink the queen would have reacted to the death of her great-nephew? And talk about timing!You go off party-hopping right when the guy who tried to kidnap the princess is running loose.Not that you would know that, seeing as you were probably too busy playing slot machines andusing your fake IDs."
  • I winced at the reference to Victor, though I suppose I should have been relieved that we wereabove suspicion for his escape. Hans read my grimace as an admission of guilt."You might have graduated," he declared, "but that does not mean you are invincible."This whole encounter reminded me of when Lissa and I had returned to St. Vladimirs, whenwed been chastised for the same thing: recklessly running off and endangering her. Only thistime, there was no Dimitri to defend me. That memory made a lump form in my throat as Iremembered his face, serious and gorgeous, those brown eyes intense and passionate as he spokeup for me and convinced the others of my value.But no. No Dimitri here. It was just Eddie and me alone, facing the consequences of the realworld."You." Hans pointed a stubby finger at Eddie. "You might be lucky enough to slide out of thiswithout too many repercussions. Sure, youll have a black mark on your record forever. Andyouve totally screwed up your chances of ever having an elite royal position with otherguardians to support you. Youll get some assignment though. Working alone with some minornobility, probably."High-ranking royals had more than one guardian, which always made protection easier. Hansspoint was that Eddies assignment would be lowly--creating more work and danger for him.Casting him a sidelong glance, I saw that hard, determined look on his face again. It seemed tosay he didnt care if he had to guard a family by himself. Or even ten families. In fact, he gave offthe vibe that they could drop him alone into a nest of Strigoi and hed take them all on."And you." Hanss sharp voice jerked my gaze back to him. "You will be lucky to ever have ajob."
  • Like always, I spoke without thinking. I should have taken this silently like Eddie. "Of course Illhave one. Tasha Ozera wants me. And youre too short on guardians to keep me sitting around."Hanss eyes gleamed with bitter amusement. "Yes, we are short on guardians, but theres all sortsof work we need done--not just personal protection. Someone has to staff our offices. Someonehas to sit and guard the front gates."I froze. A desk job. Hans was threatening me with a desk job. All of my horrible imaginings hadinvolved me guarding some random Moroi, someone I didnt know and would possibly hate. Butin any of those scenarios, I would be out in the world. I would be in motion. I would be fightingand defending.But this? Hans was right. Guardians were needed for the Courts administrative jobs. True, theyonly kept a handful--we were too valuable--but someone had to do it. One of those someonesbeing me was too awful to comprehend. Sitting around all day for hours and hours... like theguards in Tarasov. Guardian life had all sorts of unglamorous--but necessary--tasks.It truly, truly hit me then that I was in the real world. Fear slammed into me. Id taken on the titleof guardian when I graduated, but had I really understood what it meant? Had I been playingmake-believe--enjoying the perks and ignoring the consequences? I was out of school. Therewould be no detention for this. This was real. This was life and death.My face must have given away my feelings. Hans gave a small, cruel smile. "Thats right. Wevegot all sorts of ways to tame troublemakers. Lucky for you, your ultimate fates still beingdecided. And in the meantime, theres a lot of work that needs to be done around here that youtwo are going to be helping with."That "work" over the next few days turned out to be menial manual labor. Honestly, it wasnt toodifferent from detention, and I was pretty sure it had just been created to give wrongdoers like ussomething awful to do. We worked twelve hours a day, much of it outdoors hauling rocks anddirt to build some new, pretty courtyard for a set of royal town houses. Sometimes we were puton cleaning duty, scrubbing floors. I knew they had Moroi workers for these kinds of things, andprobably they were being given a vacation right now.
  • Still, it was better than the other work Hans would give us: sorting and filing mountains andmountains of paper. That gave me a new appreciation for information going digital... and againmade me worry about the future. Over and over, I kept thinking about that initial conversationwith Hans. The threat that this could be my life.That I would never be a guardian--in the truesense--to Lissa or any other Moroi. Throughout my training, wed always had a mantra: Theycome first. If I had really and truly screwed up my future, Id have a new mantra: A comes first.Then B, C, D...Those work days kept me away from Lissa, and the front-desk staff within our respectivebuildings went out of their way to keep us apart too. It was frustrating. I could keep track of herthrough the link, but I wanted to talk to her. I wanted to talk to anyone. Adrian stayed away tooand didnt bother with dreams, making me wonder how he felt. Wed never had our "talk" afterLas Vegas. Eddie and I often worked side by side, but he wasnt speaking to me, which left mewith hours of being trapped with my own thoughts and guilt.And believe me, I had plenty of things to intensify my guilt. Around Court, people didnt reallynotice workers. So whether I was inside or outside, people were always talking like I wasntthere. The biggest topic was Victor. Dangerous Victor Dashkov on the loose. How could it havehappened? Did he have powers no one knew about? People were afraid, some even convincedhed show up at Court and try to kill everyone in their sleep. The "inside job" theory was runningrampant, which continued to keep us above suspicion. Unfortunately, it meant a lot of peoplenow worried about traitors within our midst. Who knew who might be working for VictorDashkov? Spies and rebels could be lurking at Court, planning all sorts of atrocities. I knew allthe stories were exaggerated, but it didnt matter. They all came from one kernel of truth: VictorDashkov was walking the world a free man. And only I--and my accomplices--knew it was allbecause of me.Being seen in Las Vegas had continued to provide an alibi for the prison break and had madewhat wed done seem even more rash. People were aghast that wed let the Dragomir princess runoff while there was a dangerous man on the loose--the man whod assaulted her! Thank God,everyone said, that the queen had pulled us out of there before Victor found us. The Las Vegastrip had also opened up a whole new line of speculation--one that involved me personally.
  • "Well, that doesnt surprise me about Vasilisa," I overheard a woman say while I was workingoutdoors one day. She and some friends were strolling along toward the feeders building anddidnt even see me. "Shes run away before, right? Those Dragomirs can be wild ones. Shellprobably go straight back to the first party she can find, once they catch Victor Dashkov.""Youre wrong," her friend said. "Thats not why she went. Shes actually pretty levelheaded. Itsthat dhampir thats always with her--the Hathaway girl. I heard she and Adrian Ivashkov went toLas Vegas to elope. The queens people just barely got there in time to stop them. Tatianasfurious, especially since Hathaway declared nothing will keep her and Adrian apart."Whoa. That was kind of a shock. I mean, I guessed it was better for people to think Adrian and Iwere running off than for them to accuse me of aiding and abetting a fugitive, but still... I waskind of amazed at how that conclusion had come about. I hoped Tatiana hadnt heard about ourso-called elopement. I was pretty sure that would ruin whatever progress she and I had made.My first real social contact came in the form of an unlikely source. I was shoveling dirt into araised flower bed and sweating like crazy. It was nearing bedtime for Moroi, meaning the sunwas out in full summer glory. We at least had a pretty site while working: the Courts giantchurch.Id spent a lot of time at the Academys chapel but had rarely visited this church since it was setfar from the main buildings of the Court. It was Russian Orthodox--the predominant Moroireligion--and reminded me a lot of some of the cathedrals Id seen while actually in Russia,though not nearly as big. It was made of beautiful red stonework, its towers topped with green-tiled domes, which were in turn topped with golden crosses.Two gardens marked the far boundaries of the churchs extensive grounds, one of which we wereworking on. Near us was one of the Courts most remarkable sites: a giant statue of some ancientMoroi queen that was almost ten times my height. A matching statue of a king stood on theopposite side of the grounds. I could never remember their names but was pretty sure wed goneover them in one of my history classes. Theyd been visionaries, changing the Moroi world oftheir time.
  • A figure appeared in my periphery, and I assumed it was Hans coming to give us another awfulchore. Looking up, I was astonished to see it was Christian."Figures," I said. "You know youll get in trouble if someone sees you talking to me."Christian shrugged and sat on the edge of a partially completed stone wall. "Doubt it. Youre theone wholl get into trouble, and I really dont think things can get any worse for you.""True," I grunted.He sat there in silence for several moments, watching me shovel pile after pile of dirt. Finally, heasked, "Okay. So how and why did you do it?""Do what?""You know exactly what. Your little adventure.""We got on a plane and flew to Las Vegas. Why? Hmm. Lets think." I paused to wipe sweat offmy forehead. "Because where else are we going to find pirate-themed hotels and bartenders whodont card very much?"Christian scoffed. "Rose, dont bullshit me. You did not go to Las Vegas.""Weve got plane tickets and hotel receipts to prove it, not to mention people who saw theDragomir princess hit it big on slot machines."
  • My attention was on my work, but I suspected Christian was shaking his head in exasperation."As soon as I heard three people had broken Victor Dashkov out of prison, I knew it had to beyou. Three of you gone? No question."Not far away, I saw Eddie stiffen and glance around uneasily. I did the same. I might have beendesperate for social contact, but not at the risk of dangerous parties overhearing us. Our crimesgetting out would make garden labor seem like a vacation. We were alone, but I still pitched myvoice low and attempted an honest face."I heard they were humans hired by Victor." That was yet another theory running wild, as wasthis one: "Actually, I think he turned Strigoi.""Right," Christian said snidely. He knew me too well to believe me. "And I also heard one of theguardians has no memory of what made him attack his friends. He swears he was under thecontrol of someone. Anyone who had that kind of compulsion could probably make others seehumans, mimes, kangaroos...."I refused to look at him and slammed the shovel hard into the ground. I bit my lip on any angryretort."She did it because she thinks Strigoi can be restored to their original form."My head shot up, and I stared at Eddie in disbelief, astonished hed spoken. "What are youdoing?""Telling the truth," replied Eddie, never stopping his work. "Hes our friend. You think hes goingto report us?"No, rebel Christian Ozera was not going to report us. But that didnt mean I wanted this out. Its afact of life: The more people who know a secret, the more likely it is to leak.
  • Unsurprisingly, Christians reaction was not all that different from everyone elses. "What? Thatsimpossible. Everyone knows that.""Not according to Victor Dashkovs brother," said Eddie."Will you stop it?" I exclaimed."You can tell him or I will."I sighed. Christians pale blue eyes were staring at us, wide and shocked. Like most of myfriends, he rolled with crazy ideas, but this was pushing the crazy line."I thought Victor Dashkov was an only child," Christian said.I shook my head. "Nope. His dad had an affair, so Victors got an illegitimate half-brother.Robert. And hes a spirit user.""Only you," said Christian. "Only you would find something like this."I ignored what appeared to be a return to his normal cynicism. "Robert claims to have healed aStrigoi--killed the undead part of her and brought her back to life.""Spirit has limits, Rose. You might have been brought back, but Strigoi are gone.""We dont know about spirits full range," I pointed out. "Half of it is still a mystery."
  • "We know about St. Vladimir. If he could restore Strigoi, dont you think a guy like him wouldhave been doing it? I mean, if thats not miraculous, what is? Something like that would havesurvived in the legends," argued Christian."Maybe.Maybe not." I retied my ponytail, replaying our encounter with Robert in my mind forthe hundredth time. "Maybe Vlad didnt know how. Its not all that easy.""Yeah," agreed Eddie. "This is the good part.""Hey," I shot back at him. "I know youre mad at me, but with Christian here, we really dontneed anyone else making snide comments.""I dont know," said Christian. "For something like this, you actually might need two people.Now explain how this miracle is supposedly done."I sighed. "By adding spirit to a stake, along with the other four elements."Spirit charms were still a new concept to Christian too. "Never thought of that. I guess spiritwould shake things up... but I cant imagine you staking a Strigoi with a spirit-charmed stakewould be enough to bring them back.""Well... thats the thing. According to Robert, I cant do it. It has to be done by a spirit user."More silence. Id rendered Christian speechless yet again.At last he said, "We dont know that many spirit users. Let alone any who could fight or stake aStrigoi."
  • "We know two spirit users." I frowned, recalling Oksana in Siberia and Avery locked away...where? A hospital?A place like Tarasov?"No, four.Five, counting Robert. But yeah, none ofthem can really do it.""It doesnt matter because it cant be done," Eddie said."We dont know that!" The desperation in my own voice startled me. "Robert believes it. Victoreven believes." I hesitated. "And Lissa does too.""And she wants to do it," Christian said, catching on quickly. "Because she would do anythingfor you.""She cant.""Because she doesnt have the ability or because you wont let her?""Both," I cried. "Im not letting her anywhere near a Strigoi. Shes already..." I groaned, hating toreveal what Id discovered in our time apart through the bond. "She got a hold of a stake and istrying to charm it. So far, she hasnt had much luck, thank God.""If this were possible," began Christian slowly. "It could change our world. If she could learn... ""What? No!" Id been so eager to get Christian to believe me, and now I wished he hadnt. Theone saving grace in all this was that with none of my friends thinking it was possible, none ofthem had given any thought to Lissa actually trying to fight a Strigoi. "Lissas no warrior. Nospirit user we know is, so unless we find one, Id rather... " I winced. "Id rather Dimitri died."That finally made Eddie stop working. He threw down his shovel. "Really? I never would haveguessed that." Sarcasm to rival my own.
  • I spun around and strode toward him, my fists clenched. "Look, I cant take this anymore! Imsorry. I dont know what else to say. I know I screwed up. I let Dimitri get away. I let Victor getaway.""You let Victor get away?" asked Christian, startled.I ignored him and continued shouting at Eddie. "It was a mistake. With Dimitri... it was a weakmoment. I failed in my training. I know I did. We both know it. But you know I didnt intend thedamage I caused. If youre really my friend, you have to know it. If I could take it back..." Iswallowed, surprised to feel my eyes burning. "I would. I swear I would, Eddie."His face was perfectly still. "I believe you. I am your friend, and I know... I know you didntmean for things to turn out like they did."I sagged in relief, surprised at how truly worried Id been about losing his respect and friendship.Looking down, I was startled to see my fists balled up. I relaxed them, unable to believe Id beenthat upset. "Thank you. Thank you so much.""Whats all this shouting?"We both turned and saw Hans heading toward us. And he looked pissed off. I also noticed thenthat Christian had practically vanished into thin air. Just as well."This isnt social time!" growled Hans. "You two still have another hour left today. If youregoing to get distracted, then maybe you should be separated." He beckoned to Eddie. "Come on.Theres some filing with your name on it."I shot Eddie a sympathetic look as Hans led him away. Yet I was relieved it wasnt me off to dopaperwork.
  • I continued my labors, my mind spinning with the same questions Id had all week. I had meantwhat I said to Eddie. I wanted so badly for this dream of Dimitri being saved to be true. I wantedit more than anything--except Lissa risking her life. I shouldnt have hesitated. I should have justkilled Dimitri. Victor wouldnt have escaped. Lissa wouldnt have given Roberts words a secondthought.Thinking of Lissa pushed me into her mind. She was in her room, doing some last-minutepacking before going to bed. Tomorrow was her Lehigh visit. Unsurprisingly, my invitation togo with her had been revoked in light of recent events. Her birthday--something that had beenhorribly overlooked in this mess--was this weekend as well, and it didnt seem right for me to beapart from her during it. We should have been celebrating together. Her thoughts were troubled,and she was so consumed by them that a sudden knock at the door made her jump.Wondering who could be visiting her at this hour, she opened the door and gasped to seeChristian standing there. It was surreal to me too. Part of me still kept thinking we were in ourschool dorms, where rules--theoretically--kept guys and girls out of each others rooms. But wewere no longer there. We were technically adults now. He must have gone straight to her roomafter seeing me, I realized.It was astonishing how quickly the tension ratcheted up between them. A bundle of emotionsburst into Lissas chest, the usual mix of anger, grief, and confusion."What are you doing here?" she demanded.The same emotions were in his face. "I wanted to talk to you.""Its late," she said stiffly. "Besides, I seem to remember you dont like talking.""I want to talk about what happened with Victor and Robert."
  • That was enough to startle her out of her anger. She cast an anxious look into the hallway andthen beckoned him inside. "How do you know about that?" she hissed, hastily shutting the door."I just saw Rose.""How did you get to see her? I cant see her." Lissa was as frustrated as me over how oursuperiors had been keeping us apart.Christian shrugged, careful to maintain a safe distance between them in the suites small livingroom. Both of them had their arms crossed defensively, though I dont think they realized howthey were mirroring each other. "I snuck into her prison camp. Theyve got her shoveling dirt forhours."Lissa grimaced. With the way theyd kept us separated, she hadnt known much about myactivities. "Poor Rose.""Shes managing. Like always." Christians eyes turned toward the couch and her open suitcase,where a silver stake lay on top of a silk blouse. I doubted that shirt would survive the trip withouta million wrinkles. "Interesting thing to bring on a college visit."Lissa hastily shut the suitcase. "Thats none of your business.""Do you really believe it?" he asked, ignoring her comment. He took a step forward, hiseagerness apparently making him forget about wanting to keep away. Even as distracted as shewas by the situation, Lissa immediately became aware of their new proximity, the way hesmelled, the way the light shone on his black hair.... "Do you think you could bring back aStrigoi?"
  • She turned her attention back to the conversation and shook her head. "I dont know. I reallydont. But I feel like... I feel like I have to try. If nothing else, I want to know what spirit in astake will do. Thats harmless enough.""Not according to Rose."Lissa gave him a rueful smile, realized what she was doing, and promptly dropped it. "No. Rosedoesnt want me going anywhere near this idea--even though she wants it to be real.""Tell me the truth." His gaze burned to her. "Do you think you have any chance of staking aStrigoi?""No," she admitted. "I could barely throw a punch. But... like I said, I feel like I should try. Ishould try to learn. To stake one, I mean."Christian pondered this for a few moments and then gestured toward the suitcase again. "Youregoing to Lehigh in the morning?"Lissa nodded."And Rose got cut from the trip?""Of course.""Did the queen offer to let you bring another friend?""She did," admitted Lissa. "In particular, she suggested Adrian. But hes sulking... and Im notreally sure if Im in the mood for him."
  • Christian seemed pleased by this. "Then bring me."My poor friends. I wasnt sure how much more shock any of them could handle today."Why the hell would I bring you?" she exclaimed. All her anger returned at his presumption. Itwas a sign of her agitation that shed sworn."Because," he said, face calm, "I can teach you how to stake a Strigoi." Chapter Thirteen"THE HELL YOU CAN," I said aloud to no one."No, you cant," said Lissa, with an expression that matched my own incredulity. "I know youvebeen learning to fight with fire, but you havent done any staking."Christians face was adamant. "I have--a little. And I can learn more. Mias got some guardianfriends here that have been teaching her physical combat, and Ive learned some of it."The mention of him and Mia working together didnt do much to improve Lissas opinion."Youve barely been here a week! You make it sound like youve been training for years withsome master.""Its better than nothing," he said. "And where else are you going to learn? Rose?"Lissas outrage and disbelief dimmed a little. "No," she admitted. "Never. In fact, Rose woulddrag me away if she caught me doing it."
  • Damn straight I would. In fact, despite the obstacles and staff that kept blocking me, I wastempted to march over there right now."Then this is your chance," he said. His voice turned wry. "Look, I know things arent... greatwith us, but thats irrelevant if youre going to learn this. Tell Tatiana you want to bring me toLehigh. She wont like it, but shell let you. Ill show you what I know in our free time. Then,when we get back, Ill take you to Mia and her friends."Lissa frowned. "If Rose knew...""Thats why well start when youre away from Court. Shell be too far away from you to doanything."Oh, for the love of God. I would give them some lessons about fighting--starting with a punch toChristians face."And when we get back?" asked Lissa. "Shell find out. Its inevitable with the bond."He shrugged. "If shes still on landscape duty, well be able to get away with it. I mean, shellknow, but she wont be able to interfere. Much.""It may not be enough," Lissa said with a sigh. "Rose was right about that--I cant expect to learnin a few weeks what it took her years to do."Weeks? That was her timeline on this?"You have to try," he said, almost gentle. Almost.
  • "Why are you so interested in this?" Lissa asked suspiciously. "Why do you care so much aboutbringing Dimitri back? I mean, I know you liked him, but you dont quite have the samemotivation here that Rose does.""He was a good guy," said Christian. "And if there was a way to turn him back to a dhampir?Yeah, thatd be amazing. But its more than that... more than just him. If there was a way to saveall Strigoi, that would change our world. I mean, not that setting them on fire isnt cool aftertheyve gone on killing sprees, but if we could stop those killing sprees in the first place? Thatsthe key to saving us. All of us."Lissa was speechless for a moment. Christian had spoken passionately, and there was a hoperadiating off of him that she just hadnt expected. It was... moving.He took advantage of her silence. "Besides, theres no telling what youd do without anyguidance. And Id like to reduce the odds of you getting yourself killed, because even if Rosewants to deny it, I know youre going to keep pushing this."Lissa stayed quiet yet again, pondering the situation. I listened to her thoughts, not liking at allwhere they were going."Were leaving at six," she said at last. "Can you meet me downstairs at five thirty?" Tatianawouldnt be thrilled when she heard about the new guest choice, but Lissa was pretty sure shecould do some fast talking in the morning.He nodded. "Ill be there."Back in my room, I was totally aghast. Lissa was going to attempt to learn to stake a Strigoi--behind my back--and she was going to get Christian to help her. Those two had been snarling ateach other since the breakup. I should have felt flattered that sneaking around me was bringingthem together, but I wasnt. I was pissed off.
  • I considered my options. The buildings Lissa and I were staying in didnt have the kind of front-desk curfew security that our school dorms had had, but the staff here had been instructed to tipoff someone in the guardians office if I got too social. Hans had also told me to stay away fromLissa until further notice. I pondered it all for a moment, thinking it might be worth Hansdragging me from Lissas room, and then finally thought of an alternate plan. It was late but nottoo late, and I left my room for the one next door to mine. Knocking on the door, I hoped myneighbor was still awake.She was a dhampir my age, a recent graduate from a different school. I didnt own a cell phone,but Id seen her talking on one earlier today. She answered the door a few moments later andfortunately didnt appear to have been in bed."Hey," she said, understandably surprised."Hey, can I send a text from your phone?"I didnt want to commandeer her phone with a conversation, and besides, Lissa might just hangup on me. My neighbor shrugged, stepped into the room, and returned with the phone. I hadLissas number memorized and sent her the following note:I know what youre going to do, and it is a BAD idea. Im going to kick both your asses when Ifind you.I handed the phone back to its owner. "Thanks. If anyone texts back, can you let me know?"She told me she would, but I didnt expect any return texts. I got my message another way. WhenI returned to the room and Lissas mind, I got to be there when her phone chimed. Christian hadleft, and she read my text with a rueful smile. My answer came through the link. She knew I waswatching.
  • Sorry, Rose. Its a risk Ill have to take. Im doing this.I tossed and turned that night, still angry at what Lissa and Christian were trying to do. I didntthink Id ever fall asleep, but when Adrian came to me in a dream, it became clear that my bodysexhaustion had defeated my minds agitation."Las Vegas?" I asked.Adrians dreams always occurred in different places of his choosing. Tonight, we stood on theStrip, very near where Eddie and I had rendezvoused with Lissa and him at the MGM Grand.The bright lights and neon of the hotels and restaurants gleamed in the blackness, but the wholesetting was eerily silent compared to the reality. Adrian had not brought the cars or people of thereal Las Vegas here. It was like a ghost town.He smiled, leaning against a pole covered in paper ads for concerts and escort services. "Well,we didnt really get a chance to enjoy it while we were there.""True." I stood a few feet away, arms crossed over my chest. I had on jeans and a T-shirt, alongwith my nazar. Adrian had apparently decided not to dress me tonight, for which I was grateful. Icould have ended up like one of those Moroi showgirls, in feathers and sequins. "I thought youwere avoiding me." I still wasnt entirely sure where our relationship stood, despite his flippantattitude back at the Witching Hour.He snorted. "Its not by my choice, little dhampir. Those guardians are doing their best to keepyou in solitary. Well, kind of.""Christian managed to sneak in and talk to me earlier," I said, hoping to avoid the issue that hadto be on Adrians mind: that Id risked lives to save my ex-boyfriend. "Hes going to try to teachLissa to stake a Strigoi."
  • I waited for Adrian to join in my outrage, but he appeared as lax and sardonic as usual. "Notsurprised shes gonna try. What surprises me is that hed actually be interested in helping withsome crazy theory.""Well, its crazy enough to appeal to him... and can apparently overpower them hating each otherlately."Adrian tilted his head, making some of the hair fall over his eyes. A building with blue neonpalm trees cast an eerie glow upon his face as he gave me a knowing look. "Come on, we bothknow why hes doing it.""Because he thinks his after-school group with Jill and Mia qualifies him to teach that stuff?""Because it gives him an excuse to be around her--without making it look like he gave in first.That way, he can still seem manly."I shifted slightly so that the lights of a giant sign advertising slot machines didnt shine in myeyes. "Thats ridiculous." Especially the part about Christian being manly."Guys do ridiculous things for love." Adrian reached into his pocket and held up a pack ofcigarettes. "Do you know how badly I want one of these right now? Yet I suffer, Rose. All foryou.""Dont turn romantic on me," I warned, trying to hide my smile. "We dont have time for that, notwhen my best friend wants to go monster hunting.""Yeah, but how is she actually going to find him? Thats kind of a problem." Adrian didnt needto elaborate on the "him."
  • "True," I admitted."And she hasnt been able to charm the stake yet anyway, so until she does, all the kung-fu skillsin the world wont matter.""Guardians dont do kung-fu. And how did you know about the stake?""Shes asked for my help a couple of times," he explained."Huh. I didnt know that.""Well, youve been kind of busy. Not that youve even spared a thought for your poor piningboyfriend."With all my chores, I hadnt spent a huge amount of time in Lissas head--just enough to check inwith her. "Hey, I would have taken you over filing any day." Id been so afraid that Adrian wouldbe furious with me after Vegas, yet here he was, light and playful. A little too light. I wanted himto focus on the problem at hand. "Whats your take on Lissa and the charms? Is she close todoing it?"Adrian absentmindedly played with the cigarettes, and I was tempted to tell him to go ahead andhave one. This was his dream, after all. "Unclear. I havent taken to charms the way she has. Itsweird having the other elements in there... makes it hard to manipulate spirit.""Are you helping her anyway?" I asked suspiciously.He shook his head in amusement. "What do you think?"
  • I hesitated. "I... I dont know. You help her with most spirit things, but helping her with thiswould mean...""... Helping Dimitri?"I nodded, not trusting myself to elaborate."No," Adrian said at last. "Im not helping her, simply because I dont know how."I exhaled with relief. "I really am sorry," I told him. "For everything... for lying about where Iwas and what I was doing. It was wrong. And I dont understand... well, I dont get why yourebeing so nice to me.""Should I be mean?" He winked. "Is that the kind of thing youre into?""No! Of course not. But, I mean, you were so mad when you came to Vegas and found out whatwas going on. I just thought... I dont know. I thought you hated me."The amusement faded from his features. He came over to me and rested his hands on myshoulders, his dark green eyes dead serious. "Rose, nothing in this world could make me hateyou.""Not even trying to bring my ex-boyfriend back from the dead?"Adrian held onto me, and even in a dream, I could smell his skin and cologne. "Yeah, Ill behonest. If Belikov were walking around right now, alive like he used to be? There would besome problems. I dont want to think what would happen with us if... well, its not worth wastingtime on. Hes not here."
  • "I still... I still want us to work," I said meekly. "I would still try, even if he were back. I justhave a hard time letting someone I care about go.""I know. You did what you did out of love. I cant be mad at you over that. It was stupid, butthats how love is. Do you have any idea what Id do for you? To keep you safe?""Adrian..."I couldnt meet his eyes. I suddenly felt unworthy. He was so easy to underestimate. The onlything I could do was lean my head against his chest and let him wrap his arms around me."Im sorry.""Be sorry you lied," he said, pressing a kiss to my forehead. "Dont be sorry you loved him.Thats part of you, part you have to let go, yeah, but still something thats made you who youare."Part you have to let go...Adrian was right, and that was a damned scary thing to admit. Id had my shot. Id made mygamble to save Dimitri, and it had failed. Lissa wouldnt get anywhere with the stake, meaning Ireally did have to treat Dimitri the way everyone else did: He was dead. I had to move on."Damn it," I muttered."What?" asked Adrian.
  • "I hate it when youre the sane one. Thats my job.""Rose," he said, forcibly trying to keep a serious tone, "I can think of many words to describeyou, sexy and hot being at the top of the list. You know whats not on the list? Sane."I laughed. "Okay, well, then my job is to be the less crazy one."He considered. "That I can accept."I brought my lips up to his, and even if there were still some shaky things in our relationship,there was no uncertainty in how we kissed. Kissing in a dream felt exactly like real life. Heatblossomed between us, and I felt a thrill run through my whole body. He released my hands andwrapped his arms around my waist, bringing us closer. I realized that it was time to startbelieving what I kept saying. Life did go on. Dimitri might be gone, but I could have somethingwith Adrian--at least until my job took me away. That was, of course, assuming I got one. Hell,if Hans kept me on desk duty here and Adrian continued his slothful ways, we could be togetherforever.Adrian and I kissed for a long time, pressing closer and closer. At last I broke things off. If youhad sex in a dream, did that mean youd really done it? I didnt know, and I certainly wasnt goingto find out. I wasnt ready for that yet.I stepped back, and Adrian took the hint. "Find me when you get some freedom.""Hopefully soon," I said. "The guardians cant punish me forever."Adrian looked skeptical, but he let the dream dissolve without further comment. I returned to myown bed and my own dreams.
  • The only thing that stopped me from intercepting Lissa and Christian when they met up early inher lobby the next day was that Hans summoned me to work even earlier. He put me onpaperwork duty--in the vaults, ironically enough--leaving me to file and stew over Lissa andChristian as I watched them through my bond. I took it as a sign of my multitasking skills that Iwas able to alphabetize and spy at the same time.Yet my observations were interrupted when a voice said, "Didnt expect to find you here again."I blinked out of Lissas head and looked up from my paperwork. Mikhail stood before me. Inlight of the complications that had ensued with the Victor incident, Id nearly forgotten Mikhailsinvolvement in our "escape." I set the files down and gave him a small smile."Yeah, weird how fate works, huh? They actually want me here now.""Indeed. Youre in a fair amount of trouble, I hear."My smile turned into a grimace. "Tell me about it." I glanced around, even though I knew wewere alone. "You didnt get in any trouble, did you?"He shook his head. "No one knows what I did.""Good." At least one person had escaped this debacle unscathed. My guilt couldnt have handledhim getting caught too.Mikhail knelt so that he was eye level with me, resting his arms on the table I sat at. "Were yousuccessful? Was it worth it?""Thats a hard question to answer."
  • He arched an eyebrow."There were some... not so successful things that happened. But we did find out what we wantedto know--or, well, we think we did."His breath caught. "How to restore a Strigoi?""I think so. If our informant was telling the truth, then yeah. Except, even if he was... well, itsnot that easy to do. Its nearly impossible, really.""What is it?"I hesitated. Mikhail had helped us, but he wasnt in my circle of confidants. Yet even now, I sawthat haunted look in his eyes, the one Id seen before. The pain of losing his beloved stilltormented him. It likely always would. Would I be doing more harm than good by telling himwhat Id learned? Would this fleeting hope only hurt him more?I finally decided to tell him. Even if he told others--and I didnt think he would--most wouldlaugh it off anyway. There would be no damage there. The real trouble would come if he toldanyone about Victor and Robert--but I didnt actually have to mention their involvement to him.Unlike Christian, it had apparently not occurred to Mikhail that the prison break so big in Moroinews had been pulled off by the teens he helped smuggle out. Mikhail probably couldnt spare athought for anything that didnt involve saving his Sonya."It takes a spirit user," I explained. "One with a spirit-charmed stake, and then he... or she... hasto stake the Strigoi.""Spirit..." That element was still foreign to most Moroi and dhampirs--but not to him. "LikeSonya. I know spirits supposed to make them more alluring... but I swear, she never needed it.
  • She was beautiful on her own." As always, Mikhails face took on that same sad look it didwhenever Ms. Karp was mentioned. Id never really seen him truly happy since meeting him andthought hed be pretty good-looking if he ever genuinely smiled. He suddenly seemedembarrassed at his romantic lapse and returned to business. "What spirit user could do astaking?""None," I said flatly. "Lissa Dragomir and Adrian Ivashkov are the only two spirit users I evenknow--well, aside from Avery Lazar." I was leaving Oksana and Robert out of this. "Neither ofthem has the skill to do it--you know that as well as I do. And Adrian has no interest in itanyway."Mikhail was sharp, picking up on what I didnt say. "But Lissa does?""Yes," I admitted. "But it would take her years to learn to do it. If not longer. And shes the lastof her line. She cant be risked like that."The truth of my words hit him, and I couldnt help but share his pain and disappointment. Likeme, hed put a lot of faith into this last-ditch effort to be reunited with his lost love. I had justaffirmed that it was possible... yet impossible. I think it would have been easier on both of us tolearn it had all been a hoax.He sighed and stood up. "Well... I appreciate you going after this. Sorry your punishment is fornothing."I shrugged. "Its okay. It was worth it.""I hope..." His face turned hesitant. "I hope it ends soon and doesnt affect anything.""Affect what?" I asked sharply, catching the edge in his voice.
  • "Just... well, guardians who disobey orders sometimes face long punishments.""Oh. This." He was referring to my constant fear of being stuck with a desk job. I tried to playflippant and not to show how much that possibility scared me. "Im sure Hans was bluffing. Imean, would he really make me do this forever just because I ran away and--"I stopped, my mouth hanging open when a knowing glint flashed in Mikhails eyes. Id heardlong ago how hed tried to track down Ms. Karp, but the logistics had never really hit me untilnow. No one would have condoned his search. He would have had to leave on his own, breakingprotocol, and come skulking back when he finally gave up on locating her. He would have beenin just as much trouble as me for going MIA."Is that..." I swallowed. "Is that why you... why you work down here in the vaults now?"Mikhail didnt answer my question. Instead, he glanced down with a small smile and pointed atmy stacks of paper. "F comes before L," he said before turning and leaving."Damn," I muttered, looking down. He was right. Apparently I couldnt alphabetize so well whilewatching Lissa. Still, once I was alone, that didnt stop me from tuning back into her mind. Iwanted to know what she was doing... and I didnt want to think about how what Id done wouldprobably be considered worse than Mikhails deeds in the eyes of the guardians. Or that asimilar--or worse--punishment might be in store for me.Lissa and Christian were at a hotel near Lehighs campus. The middle of the vampiric day meantevening for the human university. Lissas tour wouldnt start until their morning the next day,which meant she had to bide her time at the hotel now and try to adjust to a human schedule.Lissas "new" guardians, Serena and Grant, were with her, along with three extras that the queenhad sent as well. Tatiana had allowed Christian to come along and hadnt been nearly as opposedas Lissa had feared--which again made me question if the queen really was as awful as Id alwaysbelieved. Priscilla Voda, a close advisor of the queen that both Lissa and I liked, was alsoaccompanying Lissa as she looked around the school. Two of the additional guardians stayed
  • with Priscilla; the third stayed with Christian. They ate dinner as a group and then retired to theirrooms. Serena was actually staying with Lissa in hers while Grant stood guard outside the door.Watching all this triggered a pang in me. Pair guarding--it was what Id been trained for. What Idbeen expecting my whole life to do for Lissa.Serena was a picture-perfect example of guardian aloofness, being there but not there as Lissahung up some of her clothes. A knock at the door immediately shot Serena into action. Her stakewas in hand, and she strode to the door, looking out through its peephole. I couldnt help butadmire her reaction time, though part of me would never believe anyone could guard Lissa aswell as I could. "Get back," Serena said to Lissa.A moment later, the tension in Serena faded a tiny bit, and she opened the door. Grant stoodthere with Christian beside him."Hes here to see you," Grant said, like it wasnt obvious.Lissa nodded. "Um, yeah. Come on in."Christian stepped inside when Grant backed away. Christian gave Lissa a meaningful look as hedid, making a small head nod toward Serena."Hey, um, would you mind giving us some privacy?" As soon as the words were out of Lissasmouth, she turned bright pink. "I mean... we just... we just need to talk about some things, thatsall."Serena kept her face almost neutral, but it was clear she thought they were going to do more thantalk. Average teen dating wasnt usually hot gossip in the Moroi world, but Lissa, with hernotoriety, attracted a bit more attention with her romantic affairs. Serena would have knownChristian and Lissa had gone out and broken up. For all she knew, they were back together now.Lissa inviting him on this trip certainly suggested it.
  • Serena glanced around warily. The balance of protection and privacy was always difficult withMoroi and guardians, and hotel rooms like this made it even harder. If they were on a vampiricschedule, with everyone sleeping during daylight hours, I didnt doubt Serena would havestepped into the hall with Grant. But it was dark outside, and even a fifth-floor window could bea Strigoi liability. Serena wasnt keen on leaving her new charge alone.Lissas hotel suite had an expansive living room and work area, with an adjacent bedroomaccessible through frosted-glass French doors. Serena nodded toward them. "How about I just goin there?" A smart idea. Provided privacy but kept her close by. Then, Serena realized theimplications, and she blushed. "I mean... unless you guys want to go in there and Ill--""No," exclaimed Lissa, growing more and more embarrassed. "This is fine. Well stay in here.Were just talking."I wasnt sure whose benefit that was for, Serenas or Christians. Serena nodded and disappearedinto the bedroom with a book, which reminded me eerily of Dimitri. She shut the door. Lissawasnt sure how well noise traveled, so she turned the TV on."God, that was miserable," she groaned.Christian seemed totally at ease as he leaned against the wall. He wasnt the formal type by anymeans, but hed put on dress clothes for dinner earlier and still wore them. They looked good onhim, no matter how much he always complained. "Why?""Because she thinks were--she thinks were--well, you know.""So? Whats the big deal?"Lissa rolled her eyes. "Youre a guy. Of course it doesnt matter to you."
  • "Hey, its not like we havent. Besides, better for her to think that than to know the truth."The reference to their past sex life inspired a mix of emotions--embarrassment, anger, andlonging--but she refused to let that show. "Fine. Lets just get this over with. Weve got a big day,and our sleeps going to be all screwy as it is. Where do we start? Do you want me to get thestake?""No need yet. We should just practice some basic defensive moves." He straightened up andmoved toward the center of the room, dragging a table out of the way.I swear, if not for the context, watching the two of them attempt combat training on their ownwould have been hilarious."Okay," he said. "So you already know how to punch.""What? I do not!"He frowned. "You knocked out Reed Lazar. Rose mentioned it, like, a hundred times. Ive neverheard her so proud about something.""I punched one person once in my life," she pointed out. "And Rose was coaching me. I dontknow if I could do it again."Christian nodded, looking disappointed--not in her skills but because he had an impatient natureand wanted to jump right into the really hard-core fighting stuff. Nonetheless, he proved asurprisingly patient teacher as he went over the fine art of punching and hitting. A lot of hismoves were actually things hed picked up from me.
  • Hed been a decent student. Was he at guardian levels? No. Not by a long shot. And Lissa? Shewas smart and competent, but she wasnt wired for combat, no matter how badly she wanted tohelp with this. Punching Reed Lazar had been a beautiful thing, but it didnt appear to beanything that would ever become natural for her. Fortunately, Christian started with simpledodging and watching ones opponent. Lissa was just a beginner at it but showed a lot ofpromise. Christian seemed to chalk it up to his instructive skills, but Id always thought spiritusers had a kind of preternatural instinct about what others might do next. I doubted it wouldwork on Strigoi, though.After a little of that, Christian finally returned to offense, and thats when things went bad.Lissas gentle, healing nature didnt mesh with that, and she refused to really strike out with herfull force, for fear of hurting him. When he realized what was happening, his snarky temperstarted to rise."Come on! Dont hold back.""Im not," she protested, delivering a punch to his chest that didnt come close to budging him.He raked a hand irritably through his hair. "You are too! Ive seen you knock on a door harderthan youre hitting me.""Thats a ridiculous metaphor.""And," he added, "you arent aiming for my face.""I dont want to leave a mark!"
  • "Well, at the rate were going, theres no danger of that," he muttered. "Besides, you can heal itaway."I was amused at their bickering but didnt like his casual encouragement of spirit use. I stillhadnt shaken my guilt over the long-term damage that the prison break could have caused.Reaching forward, Christian grabbed her by the wrist and jerked her toward him. He balled herfingers with his other hand and then slowly demonstrated how to swing a punch upward bypulling her fist toward his face. He was more interested in showing the technique and motion, soit only brushed against him."See? Arc upward. Make the impact right there. Dont worry about hurting me.""Its not that simple...."Her protest died off, and suddenly, they both seemed to notice the situation they were in. Therewas barely any space between them, and his fingers were still wrapped around her wrist. Theyfelt warm against Lissas skin and were sending electricity through the rest of her body. The airbetween them seemed thick and heavy, like it might just wrap them up and pull them together.From the widening of Christians eyes and sudden intake of breath, I was willing to bet he washaving a similar reaction at being so close to her body.Coming to himself, he abruptly released her hand and stepped back. "Well," he said roughly,though still clearly unnerved by the proximity, "I guess you arent really serious about helpingRose."That did it. Sexual tension notwithstanding, anger kindled up in Lissa at the comment. She balledher fist and totally caught Christian off guard when she swung out and socked him in the face. Itdidnt have the grace of her Reed punch, but it took Christian hard. Unfortunately, she lost herbalance in the maneuver and stumbled forward into him. The two of them went down together,hitting the floor and knocking over a small table and lamp nearby. The lamp caught the tablescorner and broke.
  • Meanwhile, Lissa had landed on Christian. His arms instinctively went out around her, and if thespace between them before had been small, it was nonexistent now. They stared into each otherseyes, and Lissas heart was pounding fiercely in her chest. That tantalizing electric feelingcrackled around them again, and all the world for her seemed to focus on his lips. Both she and Iwondered later if they might have kissed, but just then, Serena came bursting out of the bedroom.She was on guardian high alert, body tense and ready to face an army of Strigoi with her stake inhand. She came screeching to a halt when she saw the scene before her: what appeared to be aromantic interlude. Admittedly, it was an odd one, what with the broken lamp and swelling redmark on Christians face. It was pretty awkward for everyone, and Serenas attack mode faded toone of confusion."Oh," she said uncertainly. "Sorry."Embarrassment flooded Lissa, as well as self-resentment at being affected so much by Christian.She was furious at him, after all. Hastily, she pulled away and sat up, and in her flustered state,she felt the need to make it clear that there was nothing romantic whatsoever going on."It... its not what you think," she stuttered, looking anywhere except at Christian, who wasgetting to his feet and seemed just as mortified as Lissa. "We were fighting. I mean, practicingfighting. I want to learn to defend against Strigoi. And attack them. And stake them. So Christianwas kind of helping me, thats all." There was something cute about her rambling, and itreminded me charmingly of Jill.Serena visibly relaxed, and while shed mastered that blank face all guardians excelled at, it wasclear she was amused. "Well," she said, "it doesnt look like youre doing a very good job."Christian turned indignant as he stroked his injured cheek. "Hey! We are too. I taught her this."
  • Serena still thought it was all funny, but a serious, considering glint was starting to form in hereyes. "That seems like it was more lucky than anything else." She hesitated, like she was on theverge of a big decision. At last she said, "Look, if you guys are serious about this, then you needto learn to do it the right way. Ill show you how."No. Way.I was seriously on the verge of escaping the Court and hitchhiking to Lehigh to really show themhow to throw a punch--with Serena as my example--when something jolted me away from Lissaand back into my own reality. Hans.I had a sarcastic greeting on my lips, but he didnt give me a chance. "Forget the filing and followme. Youve been summoned.""I--what?"Highly unexpected. "Summoned where?"His face was grim. "To see the queen. Chapter FourteenTHE LAST TIME TATIANA HAD wanted to yell at me, shed simply taken me to one of herprivate sitting rooms. It had made for a weird atmosphere, like we were at teatime--except peopledidnt usually scream at other people during teatime. I had no reason to believe this would be anydifferent... until I noticed my escort was leading me to the main business buildings of the Court,the places where all royal governing was conducted. Shit. This was more serious than Idthought.And indeed, when I was finally ushered into the room where Tatiana waited... well, I nearlycame to a standstill and couldnt enter. Only a slight touch on my back from one of the guardianswith me kept me moving forward. The place was packed.
  • I didnt know for sure which room I was in. The Moroi actually kept a bona fide throne room fortheir king or queen, but I didnt think this was it. This room was still heavily decorated,conveying an old-world royal feel, with painstakingly carved floral molding and shining goldcandleholders on the walls. There were actually lit candles in them too. Their light reflected offthe metallic decorations in the room. Everything glittered, and I felt like Id stumbled into a stageproduction.And really, I might as well have. Because after a moments surveying, I realized where I was.The people in the room were split. Twelve of them sat at a long table on a dais at what wasclearly meant to be the focal point of the room. Tatiana herself sat at the middle of the table, withsix Moroi on one side and five Moroi on the other. The other side of the room was simply setwith rows of chairs--still elaborate and padded with satin cushions--which were also filled withMoroi. The audience.The people sitting on either side of Tatiana were the tip-off. They were older Moroi, but oneswho carried a regal air. Eleven Moroi for the eleven acting royal families. Lissa was noteighteen--though she was about to be, I realized with a start--and therefore had no spot yet.Someone was sitting in for Priscilla Voda. I was looking at the Council, the princes andprincesses of the Moroi world. The oldest member of each family claimed the royal title and anadvisory spot beside Tatiana. Sometimes the eldest waived the spot and gave it to someone thefamily felt was more capable, but the selectee was almost always at least forty-five. The Councilelected the Moroi king or queen, a position held until death or retirement. In rare circumstances,with enough backing from the royal families, a monarch could be forcibly removed from office.Each prince or princess on the Council was in turn advised by a family council, and glancingback at the audience, I recognized clusters of family members sitting together: Ivashkovs,Lazars, Badicas... The very back rows appeared to be observers. Tasha and Adrian sat together,and I knew for a fact they werent members of the Royal Council or family councils. Still, seeingthem set me at ease a little.I remained near the entrance to the room, shifting uneasily from foot to foot, wondering whatwas in store. I hadnt just earned public humiliation; Id apparently earned it in front of the mostimportant Moroi in the world. Wonderful.
  • A gangly Moroi with patchy white hair stepped forward, around the side of the long table, andcleared his throat. Immediately, the hum of conversation died. Silence filled the room."This session of the Moroi Royal Council is now in order," he declared. "Her Royal Majesty,Tatiana Marina Ivashkov, is presiding." He gave a slight bow in her direction and then discretelybacked off to the side of the room, standing near some guardians who lined the walls likedecorations themselves.Tatiana always dressed up at the parties I saw her at, but for a formal event like this, she wasreally channeling the queen look. Her dress was long-sleeved navy silk, and a glittering crown ofblue and white stones sat atop her elaborately braided hair. In a beauty pageant, I would havewritten such gems off as rhinestones. On her, I didnt question for a moment that they were realsapphires and diamonds."Thank you," she said. She was also using her royal voice, resonant and impressive, filling theroom. "We will be continuing our conversation from yesterday."Wait... what? Theyd been discussing me yesterday too? I noticed then that Id wrapped my armsaround myself in a sort of protective stance and immediately dropped them. I didnt want to lookweak, no matter what they had in store for me."Today we will be hearing testimony from a newly made guardian." Tatianas sharp gaze fell onme. The whole rooms did. "Rosemarie Hathaway, will you please come forward?"I did, keeping my head high and posture confident. I didnt exactly know where to stand, so Ipicked the middle of the room, directly facing Tatiana. If I was going to be paraded in public, Iwished someone would have tipped me off to wear guardian black and white. Whatever. Id showno fear, even in jeans and a T-shirt. I gave a small, proper bow and then met her eyes directly,bracing for what was to come."Will you please state your name?" she asked.
  • Shed already done it for me, but I still said, "Rosemarie Hathaway.""How old are you?""Eighteen?""And how long have you been eighteen?""A few months."She waited a couple moments to let it sink in, as though this were important information. "MissHathaway, we understand that around that time, you withdrew from St. Vladimirs Academy. Isthis correct?"Thats what this was about? Not the Vegas trip with Lissa?"Yes." I offered no more info. Oh God. I hoped she didnt get into Dimitri. She shouldnt haveknown about my relationship with him, but there was no telling what information could spreadaround here."You went to Russia to hunt Strigoi.""Yes.""As a type of personal revenge following the attack at St. Vladimir s?"
  • "Er... yes."No one said anything, but my response definitely caused a stir in the room. People shifteduneasily and glanced at their neighbors. Strigoi always inspired fear, and someone activelyseeking them out was still an unusual concept among us. Oddly, Tatiana seemed very pleased bythis confirmation. Was it going to be used as more ammunition against me?"We would assume then," she continued, "that you are one of those who believe in direct strikesagainst the Strigoi?""Yes.""Many had different reactions to the terrible attack at St. Vladimirs," she said. "You arent theonly dhampir who wanted to strike back against the Strigoi--though you were certainly theyoungest."I hadnt known about others going on vigilante sprees--well, aside from some reckless dhampirsin Russia. If that was the story about my trip she was willing to believe, that was fine with me."We have reports from both guardians and Alchemists in Russia that you were successful." Thiswas the first time Id heard the Alchemists mentioned in public, but of course theyd be acommon topic among the Council. "Can you tell me how many you killed?""I..." I stared in surprise. "Im not sure, Your Majesty. At least..." I racked my brain. "Seven." Itmight have been more. She thought so too."That might be a modest estimate compared to what our sources say," she noted grandly."Nonetheless, still an impressive number. Did you perform the kills by yourself?"
  • "Sometimes I did. Sometimes I had help. There were... some other dhampirs I worked with oncein a while." Technically, Id had Strigoi help as well, but I wasnt going to mention that."They were close to your age?""Yes."Tatiana said no more, and as though receiving a cue, a woman beside her spoke up. I believedshe was the Conta princess."When did you kill your first Strigoi?"I frowned. "Last December.""And you were seventeen?""Yes.""Did you perform that kill yourself?""Well... mostly. A couple friends helped with distraction." I hoped they werent going to push formore details. My first kill had occurred when Mason had died, and aside from the eventssurrounding Dimitri, that memory tormented me the most.But Princess Conta didnt want too many other details. She and the others--who soon joined inthe questioning--mostly wanted to know about my kills. They were slightly interested inknowing when other dhampirs had helped me--but didnt want to go into when Id had Moroihelp. They also glossed over my disciplinary record, which I found baffling. The rest of my
  • academic details were mentioned--my exceptional combat grades, how Id been one of the bestwhen Lissa and I had run away our sophomore year and how quickly Id made up for lost time tobecome top in my class again (at least as far as fighting went). They talked also about how Idprotected Lissa whenever we were out in the world alone and finally concluded with myexceptional trial scores."Thank you, Guardian Hathaway. You may leave."Tatianas dismissive voice left no room for doubt. She wanted me out of there. I was only tooeager to comply, giving another bow, and then scurrying out. I cast a quick glance at Tasha andAdrian as I did, and the queens voice rang out as I cleared the door, "That concludes our sessiontoday. We will convene again tomorrow."I wasnt surprised when Adrian caught up with me a few minutes later. Hans hadnt ordered meto come back and work after the session, so I had decided to read that as freedom."Okay," I said, slipping my hand into Adrians. "Enlighten me with your royal political wisdom.What was that all about?""No clue. Im the last person to ask about political stuff," he said. "I dont even go to those things,but Tasha found me at the last minute and said to come with her. I guess she got a tip-off youdbe there--but she was just as confused."Neither of us had said anything, but I realized I was leading him toward one of the buildings thathoused commerce--restaurants, shops, etc. I was starving all of a sudden."I got the impression this was part of something theyd already been talking about--shementioned their last session.""It was closed. Like tomorrows. No one knows what theyre discussing."
  • "Then why make this one public?" It didnt seem fair that the queen and Council could pick andchoose what they shared with others. Everything should have been public.He frowned. "Probably because theyre going to hold a vote soon, and thatll be public. If yourtestimony plays some role, then the Council may want to make sure other Moroi witnessed it--sothat everyone understands the decision when it comes." He paused. "But what do I know? Im nopolitician.""Makes it sound like its already decided," I grumbled. "Why have a vote at all? And why wouldI have anything to do with government?"He opened the door to a small cafe that sold light lunch food--burgers and sandwiches. Adrianhad been raised with fancy restaurants and gourmet food. I think he preferred that, but he alsoknew I didnt like always being on display or being reminded that I was with a royal from an elitefamily. I appreciated that hed known Id just want something ordinary today.Nonetheless, our being together earned us a few curious glances and whispers from the dinerspatrons. At the school, wed been a source of speculation, but here at Court? We were a main-stage attraction. Images were important at Court, and most dhampir-Moroi relationships werecarried out in secret. Us being so open--especially considering Adrians connections--wasscandalous and shocking, and people werent always discreet with their reactions. Id heard allsorts of things since returning to Court. One woman had called me shameless. Another hadspeculated aloud why Tatiana hadnt simply "dealt with me."Fortunately, most of our audience was content to stare today, making them easy to ignore. Therewas a small line of thought on Adrians forehead as we sat down at a table. "Maybe theyrevoting to make you Lissas guardian after all."I was so astonished that I couldnt say anything for several seconds when the waitress suddenlyappeared. I finally stammered out my order and then stared at Adrian with wide eyes.
  • "Seriously?" The session had been an examination of my skills, after all. It made sense. Except..."No. The Council wouldnt go to the trouble of holding sessions for one guardian assignment."My hopes fell.Adrian gave a shrug of acknowledgment. "True. But this isnt an ordinary guardian assignment.Lissas the last of her line. Everyone--including my aunt--has a special interest in her. Giving hersomeone like you whos..." I gave him a dangerous look as he grasped for a word. "...Controversial could upset some people.""And thats why they actually wanted me there to describe what Ive done. To convince people inperson that Im competent." Even as I spoke the words, I still didnt dare believe them. It was toogood to be true. "I just cant imagine it, seeing as I seem to be in so much trouble with theguardians.""I dont know," he said. "Its just a guess. Who knows? Maybe they do think the Las Vegas thingwas just a harmless prank." There was a bitter tone in his voice over that. "And I told you thatAunt Tatiana was coming around to you. Maybe she wants you as Lissas guardian now butneeds to make a public display to justify it."That was a startling thought. "But if I do get to come with Lissa, what are you going to do? Getrespectable and come to college too?""I dont know," he said, green eyes thoughtful as he sipped his drink. "Maybe I will."That was also unexpected, and my conversation with his mother returned to my mind. What if Iwas Lissas guardian in college and he was with us for the next four years? I was fairly certainDaniella had thought wed be splitting up this summer. Id thought so too... and was surprised tofeel how relieved I was that I might get to stay with him. Dimitri always left my heart full of painand longing, but I still wanted Adrian in my life.I grinned at him and rested my hand on his. "Im not sure what Id do with you if you wererespectable."
  • He lifted my hand to his lips and kissed it. "Ive got some suggestions," he told me. I didnt knowif it was his words or the feel of his mouth on my skin that sent shivers through me. I was aboutto ask what those suggestions were when our interlude was interrupted... by Hans."Hathaway," he said, one eyebrow arched as he stood over us. "You and I have some verydifferent ideas about the definition of punishment."He had a point. In my mind, punishment involved easy things like lashings and starvation. Notfiling.Instead, I replied, "You didnt tell me to come back after I saw the queen."He gave me an exasperated look. "I also didnt tell you to go off on a playdate. Come on. Back tothe vaults.""But I have a BLT coming!""Youll get your lunch break in another couple hours like the rest of us."I tried to repress my outrage. They hadnt been feeding me bread crusts and water during mywork detail, but the food hadnt tasted much better. Just then, the waitress returned with our food.I grabbed the sandwich before she even set the plates down and wrapped it in a napkin. "Can Itake it to go?""If you can eat it before we get back." His voice was skeptical, seeing as the vault was prettyclose. Clearly, he was underestimating my ability to consume food.
  • In spite of Hanss disapproving expression, I gave Adrian a kiss goodbye and a look that told himmaybe wed continue our conversation. He gave me a happy, knowing smile that I only saw for asecond before Hans ordered me away. True to my expectations, I managed to get the sandwichdown before we arrived back at the guardians building, though I did feel a little nauseous for thenext half hour or so.My lunchtime was almost dinnertime for Lissa, out in the human world. Returning to mymiserable punishment, I cheered up a little at the joy running through her via our bond. Shedspent the whole day on her campus tour of Lehigh, and it was everything shed hoped it could be.She loved it all. She loved the beautiful buildings, the grounds, the dorms... and especially theclasses. A glimpse at the course catalog opened up a world of subjects that even St. Vladimirssuperior education hadnt offered us. She wanted to see and do everything that the school had tooffer.And even though she wished I was there, she was still excited about the fact that it was herbirthday. Priscilla had given her some elaborate jewelry and had promised a fancy dinner thatnight. It wasnt exactly the type of celebration Lissa had hoped for, but the thrill of her eighteenthbirthday was still intoxicating--particularly as she looked around at the dream school shed beattending soon.I confess, I felt a pang of jealousy. Despite Adrians theory about why the queen had called me intoday, I knew--as did Lissa--that the odds of me going to college with her were still probablynonexistent. Some petty part of me couldnt understand how Lissa could therefore be excitedabout it if I wasnt going to be along. Childish of me, I know.I didnt have long to sulk, though, because once all the touring was done, Lissas entouragereturned to the hotel. Priscilla told them they could clean up for an hour or so before heading todinner. For Lissa, this meant more fighting-practice time. My brooding mood immediatelyturned irate.Things got worse when I realized that earlier in the day, Serena had told Grant about Lissa andChristians desire to defend themselves. He apparently thought that it was a good idea too. Itwould figure. Lissa had two progressive guardians. Why couldnt she have gotten some stodgy,
  • old-school person who would be horrified at the thought of a Moroi even thinking about fightingoff a Strigoi?So, while I sat helpless and unable to smack sense into any of them, Lissa and Christian now hadtwo instructors. Not only did this mean more learning opportunities, it also meant Serena had acompetent partner to demonstrate certain moves with. She and Grant sparred, explainingmaneuvers while Lissa and Christian watched wide-eyed.Fortunately (well, not for Lissa), she and I soon noticed something. The guardians didnt knowthe true reason Lissa was interested in fighting. They had no idea--how could they have?--thatshe wanted to go hunt and stake a Strigoi in the feeble hope of bringing him back to life. Theythought she just wanted to learn basic defense, something that seemed very sensible to them. Sothat was what they taught.Grant and Serena also made Lissa and Christian practice on each other. I suspected there were acouple reasons for this. One was that Lissa and Christian didnt have the skill to do much damageto each other. The second reason was that it amused the guardians.It did not amuse Lissa and Christian. There was still so much tension between them, both sexualand angry, that they resented being in such close contact. Grant and Serena stopped the twoMoroi from doing any more face punching, but simple dodges often meant brushing against eachother, fingers sliding against skin in the heat of the action. Every once in a while, the guardianswould have someone play Strigoi--putting Lissa or Christian on the offensive. The two Moroiwelcomed this to a certain extent; after all, direct attacks were what they wanted to learn.But, when Christian (playing Strigoi) lunged at Lissa and pushed her into a wall, learning offensesuddenly didnt seem like such a good idea to her. The maneuver pressed them right up to eachother, his arms holding hers. She could smell him and feel him and was overwhelmed by thefantasy of him just holding her there and kissing her."I think you two should go back to basic defense," said Grant, interrupting her traitorousfeelings. He sounded like he was more worried about them hurting each other than the possibilitythat they might start making out.
  • It took Lissa and Christian a moment to even register his words, let alone part from each other.When they did, both avoided eye contact and returned to the couch. The guardians launched intomore examples of how to avoid an attacker. Lissa and Christian had seen this so many times thatthey knew the lesson by heart, and their earlier attraction gave way to frustration.Lissa was too polite to say anything, but after fifteen minutes of Serena and Grant showing howto block with your arms and dodge someone reaching for you, Christian finally spoke. "How doyou stake a Strigoi?"Serena froze at Christians words. "Did you say stake?"Rather than being shocked, Grant chuckled. "I dont think thats anything you need to worryabout. You want to focus on getting away from a Strigoi, not getting closer."Lissa and Christian exchanged an uneasy look."I helped kill Strigoi before," Christian pointed out. "I used fire at the schools attack. Are yousaying thats not okay? That I shouldnt have done it?"Now Serena and Grant traded glances. Ha, I thought. Those two werent as progressive as Ithought. They were coming from a defense point of view, not offense."Of course you should have," said Grant at last. "What you did was amazing. And in a similarsituation? Sure. You wouldnt want to be helpless. But thats the point--you have your fire. If itcame down to you fighting a Strigoi, your magics going to be the way to go. You already knowhow to use it--and itll keep you safely out of their range.""What about me?" asked Lissa. "I dont have any kind of magic like that."
  • "Youll never get close enough to a Strigoi for it to be a problem," said Serena fiercely. "Wewont let you.""Besides," added Grant with amusement, "its not like we just go around handing out stakes." Iwould have given anything for them to go take a look in her suitcase right then.Lissa bit her lip and refused to make eye contact with Christian again, for fear of giving awaytheir intentions. This was not going according to their crazy plan. Christian again took the lead."Can you at least demo it?" he asked, trying--and succeeding--to look like someone just seekingthe sensational and exciting. "Is it hard to do? It seems like all you have to do is aim and hit."Grant snorted. "Hardly. Theres a bit more to it than that."Lissa leaned forward, clasping her hands together as she followed Christians lead. "Well, thendont worry about teaching us. Just show us.""Yeah. Lets see." Christian shifted restlessly beside her. As he did, their arms brushed, andinstantly they moved apart."Its not a game," Grant said. Nonetheless, he walked over to his coat and produced his stake.Serena stared incredulously."What are you going to do?" she asked. "Stake me?"He gave that small chuckle of his and searched the room with his sharp eyes. "Of course not. Ah.There we are." He walked over to a small armchair that had a decorative pillow. He lifted it up
  • and tested its width. It was fat and thickly filled with some sort of dense stuffing. He returned toLissa and gestured for her to stand. To everyones astonishment, he handed her his stake.Locking his body into a rigid position, he gripped the pillow hard between his hands andextended it out a couple feet in front of him. "Go ahead," he said. "Aim and hit it.""Are you crazy?" asked Serena."Dont worry," he said. "Princess Voda can afford the incidentals. Im proving a point. Strike thepillow."Lissa hesitated only a few more moments. An excitement that seemed unusually intense filledher. I knew shed been anxious to learn this, but her desire for it seemed higher than before.Gritting her teeth, she stepped forward and awkwardly tried to impale the pillow with her stake.She was cautious--fearing shed hurt Grant--but there was no need for her to worry. She didnteven budge him, and all she managed with the stake was a slight snagging of the fabric on thesurface. She tried a few more times but achieved little more.Christian, being who he was, said, "Thats all you can do?"Glaring, she handed him the stake. "You do better."Christian stood, snarky smile disappearing as he studied the pillow critically and sized up hisblow. As he did, Lissa glanced around and saw the humor in the guardians eyes. Even Serenahad relaxed. They were making their point, proving staking wasnt an easy thing to learn. I wasglad, and my opinion of them rose.Christian finally made his move. He did actually pierce the fabric, but the pillow and its stuffingproved too much to break through. And again, Grant wasnt shaken at all. After more failedattempts, Christian sat down again and handed the stake back. It was kind of fun to see
  • Christians cocky attitude shot down a little. Even Lissa enjoyed it, despite her own frustrationover how difficult this was becoming."The stuffings got too much resistance," Christian complained.Grant handed his stake to Serena. "What, and you think a Strigois body is going to be easier toget through? With muscles and ribs in the way?"Grant got back into his position, and without hesitation, Serena struck with the stake. Its pointburst through the other side of the pillow, coming to a halt just in front of Grants chest as tinyfluffy pieces of stuffing drifted to the ground. She jerked it out and handed it to him like it hadbeen the simplest thing in the world.Both Christian and Lissa stared in amazement. "Let me try again," he said.By the time Priscilla called them to dinner, there wasnt a pillow in that hotel room leftuntouched. Boy, she was going to be surprised when she got the bill. Lissa and Christian hackedaway with the stake while the guardians looked on with a superior air, confident their messagewas being delivered. Staking Strigoi was not easy.Lissa was finally getting it. She realized that in some ways, piercing a pillow--or a Strigoi--wasnt even about understanding the principle. Sure, shed heard me talk about lining your shotup to get to the heart and miss the ribs, but this was more than knowledge. A lot of it wasstrength--strength she physically didnt have yet. Serena, though seemingly petite, had spentyears building up her muscle and could get that stake through practically anything. One hour-long lesson wouldnt give Lissa that kind of strength, and she whispered as much to Christianwhen the group went out to dinner."Youre quitting already?" he asked, voice equally low as they rode in the backseat of an SUV.Grant, Serena, and a third guardian were there too, but they were deep in discussion.
  • "No!" Lissa hissed back. "But Ive got to, like, train before I can do it.""Like lift weights?""I... I dont know." The others were still talking to each other, but Lissas topic was too dangerousfor her to risk them hearing. She leaned close to Christian, unnerved yet again at how hiscloseness and familiarity affected her. Swallowing, she tried to keep her face impassive and stickto the topic. "But Im just not strong enough. Its physically impossible.""Sounds like youre giving up.""Hey! You didnt make it through any of the pillows either."He flushed slightly. "I almost got through that green one.""There was hardly anything in it!""I just need more practice.""You dont need to do anything," she shot back, fighting to keep her voice quiet through heranger. "This isnt your fight. Its mine.""Hey," he snapped, eyes glittering like pale blue diamonds, "youre crazy if you think Im goingto just let you go and risk--"He cut himself off and actually bit his lip, as though will alone wasnt enough to stop him fromtalking. Lissa stared at him, and both of us began wondering how he would have finished. Whatwouldnt he risk? Her putting herself in danger? That was my guess.
  • Even without talk, he spoke volumes with his expression. Through Lissas eyes, I saw himdrinking in her features and trying to hide his emotions. At last, he jerked away and broke thatintimate space between them, getting as far from her as he could."Fine. Do whatever you want. I dont care."Neither of them spoke after that, and since it was lunchtime for me, I returned to my own realityand welcomed a filing break--only to be informed by Hans that I had to keep working."Come on! Isnt it lunchtime? You have to feed me," I exclaimed. "Thats just beyond cruel. Atleast throw me some crumbs.""I did feed you. Or, well, you fed yourself when you inhaled that sandwich. You wanted yourlunch break then. You got it. Now you keep working."I slammed my fists against the endless piles of paper before me. "Cant I at least do somethingelse? Paint buildings? Haul rocks?""Im afraid not." A smile twisted the corners of his lips. "Theres a lot of filing we need done.""How long? How long are you going to punish me?"Hans shrugged. "Until someone tells me to stop."He left me alone again, and I leaned back in my chair, forcibly trying not to flip the table in frontof me over. I thought it would make me feel momentarily better, but it also meant Id have to
  • redo the work Id done. With a sigh, I returned to my task.Lissa was at dinner when I tuned back into her later. It might have technically been in honor ofher birthday, but really, it was all royal conversation with Priscilla. That was no way to spend abirthday, I decided. Id have to make this up to her whenever I earned freedom. Wed have a realparty, and Id be able to give her my birthday present: gorgeous leather boots that Adrian hadhelped me acquire back at school.Being in Christians head might have been more interesting, but since that wasnt an option, Ireturned to my own and mulled over my earlier talk with Adrian. Was this punishment finallygoing to end? Was an official royal decree going to put me and Lissa together at last, despite theguardians normal policy?Trying to figure it out was like being on a hamster wheel. A lot of work. No progress. But it gotme through the dinner conversation, and before I knew it, Lissas group was getting up andheading for the restaurants door. It was dark out now, and Lissa couldnt help but feel theweirdness of being on a human schedule. Back at school or the Court, this would be the middleof the day. Instead, they were now heading back to their hotel and would be going to bed. Well,probably not right away. I had no doubt that if Lissa and Christian could get over their currenthuff, theyd be back to stabbing more pillows. As much as I wanted those two dating again, Icouldnt help but think they were a lot safer apart.Or maybe not.The group had hung out at the restaurant far past the normal dinner hour, so the lot was mostlyempty as they walked across it. The guardians hadnt exactly parked in the back, but they werentnear the main entrance either. They had, however, made a point of parking next to one of thestreet lamps illuminating the lot.Except it wasnt lit now. The light had been broken.
  • Grant and Priscillas guardian noticed it right away. It was the kind of little detail we weretrained to notice: anything unusual, anything that might have changed. In a flash, the two of themhad stakes out and were flanking the Moroi. It only took seconds for Serena and the guardianassigned to Christian to follow suit. That was something else we were trained to do. Be on guard.React. Follow your colleagues.They were fast. All of them were fast. But it didnt matter.Because suddenly, there were Strigoi everywhere.Im not entirely sure where they came from. Maybe theyd been behind the cars or on the parkinglots edges. If Id had a bird-eyes view of the situation or been there myself with my "nauseaalarm," I might have had a better sense of it all. But I was watching the scene through Lissaseyes, and the guardians were going out of their way to block her from the Strigoi who seemed tohave appeared out of thin air as far as she was concerned. Most of the actions were a blur to her.Her bodyguards were shoving her around, trying to keep her safe as white, red-eyed facespopped up everywhere. She saw it all through a fear-filled haze.But before long, both of us could see people dying. Serena, just as fast and strong as shed beenin the hotel room, staked a male Strigoi cleanly through the heart. Then, in return, a femaleStrigoi leapt at Priscillas guardian and broke his neck. Lissa was distantly aware of Christiansarm around her, pressing her against the SUV and shielding her with his own body. Theremaining guardians were also still forming a protective ring as best they could, but they weredistracted. Their circle was faltering--and they were dropping.One by one, the Strigoi killed the guardians. It wasnt for lack of skill on the guardians part.They were simply outnumbered. One Strigoi tore out Grants throat with her teeth. Serena wasbackhanded hard against the asphalt, landing facedown and not moving. And, horror of horrors,the Strigoi didnt seem to be sparing Moroi either. Lissa--pushing so hard against the SUV that itseemed as though she might become one with it--stared wide-eyed as one Strigoi swiftly andefficiently ripped into Priscillas neck, pausing to drink her blood. The Moroi woman didnt evenhave time to register surprise, but at least there had been no real suffering. The endorphinsdimmed the pain as the blood and life were drained from her body.
  • Lissas emotions shifted into something beyond fear, something that hardly felt like anything atall. She was in shock. Numbed. And with a cold, hard certainty, she knew that her death wascoming and accepted it. Her hand found Christians, squeezing it tightly, and turning toward him,she took small comfort in knowing the last sight she would see in life was the beautiful,crystalline blue of his eyes. From the look on his face, his thoughts were along similar themes.There was warmth in his eyes, warmth and love and--Total and complete astonishment.His eyes widened, focusing on something just behind Lissa. At that same moment, a handgrabbed Lissas shoulder and whipped her around. This is it, a small voice inside her whispered.This is where I die.Then, she understood Christians astonishment.She was facing Dimitri.Like me, she had that surreal sense of it being Dimitri yet not being Dimitri. So many of hisfeatures were the same... and yet so many were different. She tried to say something, anything,but while the words formed on her lips, she just couldnt manage to get them out.Intense heat suddenly flared behind her, and a brilliant light lit Dimitris pale features. NeitherLissa nor I needed to see Christian to know he had produced a ball of fire with his magic. Eitherthe shock of seeing Dimitri or fear for Lissa had spurred Christian into action. Dimitri squintedslightly at the light, but then a cruel smile twisted his lips, and the hand resting on her shoulderslid up to her neck."Put it out," said Dimitri. "Put it out or she dies."
  • Lissa finally found her voice, even with her air cut off. "Dont listen to him," she gasped out."Hes going to kill us anyway."But behind her, the heat died. Shadows fell across Dimitris face once again. Christian wouldntrisk her, even though she was right. It hardly seemed to matter."Actually," said Dimitri, voice pleasant amid the grim scene, "Id rather you two stay alive. Atleast for a little while longer."I felt Lissas face move to a frown. I wouldnt have been surprised if Christians did too, judgingfrom the confusion in his voice. He couldnt even manage a snarky comment. He could only askthe obvious: "Why?"Dimitris eyes gleamed. "Because I need you to be bait for Rose." Chapter FifteenIN MY PANICKED MIND RIGHT then, getting up and running on foot to Lehigh--despite itbeing miles and miles away--seemed like a totally solid plan. A heartbeat later, I knew this wasout of my league. Way, way out of my league.As I shot up from my table and tore out of the room, I felt a sudden longing for Alberta. Id seenher jump into action at St. Vladimirs and knew she could take charge of any situation. At thispoint in our relationship, she would respond to any threat I brought to her. The guardians atCourt were still strangers to me. Who could I go to? Hans? The guy who hated me? He wouldntbelieve me, not like Alberta or my mother would. Running down the quiet hallways, I dismissedall such worries. It didnt matter. I would make him believe. I would find anyone I could. Anyonewho could get Lissa and Christian out of this.Only you can, a voice hissed in my head. Youre the one Dimitri wants.
  • I ignored that thought too, largely because in my distraction, I collided into someone rounding acorner.I gave a muffled cry that sounded like "Oomph" as my face slammed into someones chest. Ilooked up. Mikhail. I would have been relieved, except I was too pumped full of adrenaline andworry. I grabbed his sleeve and began tugging him toward the stairs."Come on! We have to get help!"Mikhail remained were he was, not budging against my pull. He frowned, face calm. "What areyou talking about?""Lissa!Lissa and Christian. Theyve been taken by Strigoi--by Dimitri. We can find them. I canfind them. But we have to hurry."Mikhails confusion grew. "Rose... how long have you been down here?"I didnt have time for this. Leaving him, I fled up the stairs to the main levels of the complex. Amoment later I heard his footsteps behind me. When I reached the main office, I expectedsomeone to chastise me for leaving my punishment, except... no one seemed to even notice me.The office was in chaos. Guardians were running around, calls were being made, and voices roseto frantic levels. They knew, I realized. They already knew."Hans!" I called, pushing my way through the crowd. He was on the other side of the room andhad just hung up on a cell call. "Hans, I know where they are. Where the Strigoi took Lissa andChristian.""Hathaway, I dont have time for your--" His scowl faltered. "You have that bond."
  • I stared in astonishment. Id been ready for him to dismiss me as a nuisance. Id been ready for along fight to convince him. I gave him a hasty nod."I saw it. I saw everything that happened." Now I frowned. "How do you know already?""Serena," he said grimly."Serenas dead..."He shook his head. "No, not yet. Though she certainly sounded like it on the phone. Whateverhappened, it took everything she had to make that call. We have Alchemists coming to get her,and... clean up."I replayed the events, remembering how Serena had been slammed against the asphalt. It hadbeen a hard blow, and when she didnt move, Id assumed the worst. Yet if shed survived--andapparently she must have--I could just barely form a mental image of her dragging her cell phoneout of her pocket with bloody hands....Please, please let her be alive, I thought, not sure who I was praying to."Come on," said Hans. "We need you. There are teams already forming."There was another surprise. I hadnt expected him to bring me on so quickly. A new respect forHans settled over me. He might act like an asshole, but he was a leader. When he saw an asset,he used it. In one swift motion, he was hurrying out the door, several guardians following him. Istruggled to keep up with their longer strides and saw Mikhail coming as well.
  • "Youre doing a rescue," I told Hans. "Thats... rare." I hesitated to even speak the words. Icertainly didnt want to discourage this. But Moroi rescues werent normal. When Strigoi tookthem, they were often regarded as dead. The rescue wed done after the Academy attack had beenan oddity, one that had taken a lot of persuasion.Hans gave me a wry look. "So is the Dragomir princess."Lissa was precious to me, worth more than anything else in the world. And for the Moroi, Irealized, she was precious too. Most Moroi captured by Strigoi might be regarded as dead, butshe wasnt most Moroi. She was the last in her line, the last of one of twelve ancient families.Losing her wouldnt just be a hit to Moroi culture. It would be a sign, an omen that the Strigoiwere truly defeating us. For her, the guardians would risk a rescue mission.In fact, it appeared they would risk a lot of things. As we arrived at the garages where the Courtsvehicles were stored, I saw masses of other guardians arriving--along with Moroi. I recognized afew. Tasha Ozera was among them, and like her, the others were fire users. If wed learnedanything, it was how valuable they were in a fight. It appeared the controversy of Moroi going tobattle was being ignored right now, and I was amazed at how quickly this group had beensummoned. Tashas eyes met mine, her face grave and drawn. She said nothing to me. She didntneed to.Hans was barking orders, splitting people into groups and vehicles. With every bit of self-controlI could muster, I waited patiently near him. My restless nature made me want to jump in and startdemanding to know what I could do. He would get to me, I assured myself. He had a role for me;I just had to wait.My self-control was also being tested with Lissa. After Dimitri had taken her and Christianaway, Id left her mind. I couldnt go back, not yet. I couldnt stand to see them--to see Dimitri. Iknew Id have to once I began directing the guardians, but for now, I held off. I knew Lissa wasalive. That was all that mattered for the time being.Still, I was so wound up and filled with tension that when someone touched my arm, I nearlyturned on them with my stake.
  • "Adrian..." I breathed. "What are you doing here?"He stood there looking down at me, and his hand gently brushed my cheek. I had only ever seensuch a serious, grim look on his face a couple of times. As usual, I didnt like it. Adrian was oneof those people who should always be smiling."As soon as I heard the news, I knew where youd be."I shook my head. "It happened like... I dont know, ten minutes ago?" Time had blurred for me."How could everyone know so soon?""It was radioed across the Court as soon as they found out. Theyve got an instant alert system. Infact, the queens kind of in lockdown.""What? Why?" Somehow that annoyed me. Tatiana wasnt the one in danger. "Why wasteresources on her?" A nearby guardian gave me a critical look over that.Adrian shrugged. "Strigoi attack relatively close by? They take it as a pretty serious securitythreat for us."Relatively was the key word. Lehigh was about an hour and a half from Court. Guardians werealways on alert, though with each passing second, I wished theyd move faster and be on alert. IfAdrian hadnt shown up, I was pretty sure I would have lost my patience and told Hans to hurry."Its Dimitri," I said in a low voice. I hadnt been sure if I should tell anyone else that. "Hes theone who took them. Hes using them to lure me there."
  • Adrians face grew darker. "Rose, you cant..." He trailed off, but I knew his meaning."What choice do I have?" I exclaimed. "I have to go. Shes my best friend, and Im the only onewho can lead them to her.""Its a trap.""I know. And he knows I know.""What will you do?" Again, I knew exactly what Adrian meant.I glanced down at the stake Id unconsciously pulled out earlier. "What I have to. I have to... Ihave to kill him.""Good," said Adrian, relief flooding his features. "Im glad."For some reason, that irritated me. "God," I snapped. "Are you that eager to get rid of anycompetition?"Adrians face stayed serious. "No. I just know that as long as hes still alive--or, well, kind ofalive--then youre in danger. And I cant stand that. I cant stand knowing that your life is in thebalance. And it is, Rose. Youll never be safe until hes gone. I want you safe. I need you to besafe. I cant... I cant have anything happen to you."My flare of anger vanished as quickly as it had come. "Oh, Adrian, Im sorry...."I let him draw me into his arms. Resting my head against his chest, I felt his heartbeat and thesoftness of his shirt, I allowed myself a brief and fleeting moment of comfort. I just wanted to
  • sink into him then and there. I didnt want to be consumed by these feelings of fear: fear for Lissaand fear of Dimitri. I went cold all over as a sudden realization slipped over me. No matter whathappened, I would lose one of them tonight. If we rescued Lissa, Dimitri would die. If hesurvived, she would die. There was no happy ending for this story, nothing that could save myheart from being crushed into pieces.Adrian brushed my forehead with his lips and then leaned down toward my mouth. "Be careful,Rose. No matter what happens, please, please be careful. I cant lose you."I didnt know what to say to that, how to respond to all that emotion pouring from him. My ownmind and heart were flooded with so many mixed feelings that I could barely form a coherentthought. Instead, I drew my lips to his and kissed him. In the midst of all the death tonight--thedeath that already had happened and that which was still to come--that kiss seemed morepowerful than any he and I had ever shared. It was alive. I was alive, and I wanted to stay thatway. I wanted to bring Lissa back, and I wanted to return to Adrians arms again, return to hislips and all this life...."Hathaway! Good God, do I need to hose you down?"I broke abruptly from Adrian and saw Hans glaring at me. Most of the SUVs were loaded up.Now it was my turn to act. I gave Adrian a look of farewell, and he forced a small smile that Ithink was supposed to be brave."Be careful," he repeated. "Bring them back--and bring yourself back too."I gave him a quick nod and then followed an impatient Hans into one of the SUVs. The mostbizarre sense of deja vu settled over me as I slid into the backseat. This was so like the timeVictor had kidnapped Lissa that I nearly froze up. Then, too, I had ridden in a similar black SUV,directing guardians toward Lissas location. Only it had been Dimitri sitting beside me--thewonderful, brave Dimitri Id known so long ago. Yet those memories were so etched into mymind and heart that I could picture every detail: the way hed tucked his hair behind his ears, thefierce look in his brown eyes as hed stepped on the gas to get us to Lissa faster. Hed been sodetermined, so ready to do what was right.
  • This Dimitri--Dimitri the Strigoi--was also determined. But in a very different way."You gonna be able to do this?" asked Hans from the front seat. A hand gently squeezed my arm,and I was startled to see Tasha beside me. I hadnt even noticed she was riding with us. "Werecounting on you."I nodded, wanting to be worthy of his respect. In best guardian fashion, I kept my emotions offmy face, trying not to feel that conflict between the two Dimitris. Trying not to remember thatthe night wed gone after Lissa and Victor had been the same night Dimitri and I had fallen preyto the lust charm...."Head toward Lehigh," I said in a cool voice. I was a guardian now. "Ill direct you when we getcloser."Wed only been on the road for about twenty minutes when I sensed Lissas group coming to ahalt. Dimitri had apparently chosen a hideout not too far from the university, which would makeit easier for us to find than if theyd kept moving. Of course, I had to remind myself that Dimitriwanted to be found. Knowing that the guardians with me wouldnt need my directions until wewere closer to Lehigh, I steeled myself and jumped into Lissas head to see what was going on.Lissa and Christian hadnt been harmed or attacked, aside from being pushed and draggedaround. They sat in what looked like a storage room--a storage room that hadnt been used in avery long time. Dust coated everything in a heavy layer, so much that it was hard to make outsome of the objects piled on the rickety shelves. Some tools, maybe. Paper here and there, aswell as the occasional box. A bare lightbulb was the only light in the room, giving everything aharsh and dingy feel.Lissa and Christian sat in straight-backed wooden chairs, their hands bound behind their backswith rope. For a moment, deja vu hit again. I remembered last winter when I too, along with myfriends, had been bound to chairs and held captive by Strigoi. Theyd drunk from Eddie, andMason had died....
  • No. Dont think like that, Rose. Lissa and Christian are alive. Nothings happened to them yet.Nothing will happen to them.Lissas mind was on the here and now, but a little probing let me see what the overall buildinghad looked like when shed been brought in. It had seemed to be a warehouse--an old, abandonedone--which made it a nice place for the Strigoi to hole up with their prisoners.There were four Strigoi in the room, but as far as Lissa was concerned, only one really mattered.Dimitri. I understood her reaction. Seeing him as a Strigoi had been hard for me. Surreal, even.Id adapted somewhat, simply because of all the time Id spent with him. Still, even I was caughtby surprise sometimes at seeing him like that. Lissa hadnt been prepared at all and was in totalshock.Dimitris dark brown hair was worn loose around his chin today, a look Id always loved on him,and he was pacing rapidly, causing his duster to swirl around him. A lot of the time, his back wasto Lissa and Christian, which made it that much more troubling for her. Without seeing his face,she could almost believe it was the Dimitri shed always known. He was arguing with the otherthree as he walked back and forth across the small space, agitation radiating off him in an almostpalpable wave."If the guardians really are coming," snarled one Strigoi, "then we should be posted outside." Shewas a tall, gangly redhead who appeared to have been Moroi when turned. Her tone implied thatshe did not think guardians were actually coming, though."Theyre coming," said Dimitri in a low voice, that lovely accent making my heart ache. "I knowthey are.""Then let me get out there and be useful!" she snapped. "You dont need us to babysit these two."Her tone was dismissive. Scornful, even. It was understandable. Everyone in the vampire worldknew Moroi didnt fight back, and Lissa and Christian were firmly bound.
  • "You dont know them," said Dimitri. "Theyre dangerous. Im not even sure this is enoughprotection.""Thats ridiculous!"In one smooth motion, Dimitri turned and backhanded her. The hit knocked her back a few feet,her eyes widening in fury and shock. He resumed his pacing as though nothing had happened."You will stay here, and you will guard them as long as I tell you to, do you understand?" Sheglared back and gingerly touched her face but said nothing. Dimitri glanced at the others. "Andyoull stay too. If the guardians actually make it this far inside, youll be needed for more thanjust guard duty.""How do you know?" demanded another Strigoi, a black-haired one who might have been humanonce. A rarity among Strigoi. "How do you know theyll come?"Strigoi had amazing hearing, but with their bickering, Lissa had a brief opportunity to speakundetected to Christian. "Can you burn my ropes?" she murmured in a nearly inaudible voice."Like with Rose?"Christian frowned. When he and I had been captured, it was what hed done to free me. It hadhurt like hell and left blisters on my hands and wrists. "Theyll notice," he breathed back. Theconversation went no further because Dimitri came to an abrupt halt and turned toward Lissa.She gasped at the sudden and unexpected movement. Swiftly approaching her, he knelt downbefore her and peered into her eyes. She trembled in spite of her best efforts. She had never beenthis close to a Strigoi, and the fact that it was Dimitri was that much worse. The red rings aroundhis pupils seemed to burn into her. His fangs looked poised to attack.
  • His hand snaked out and gripped her neck, tilting her face up so he could get an even better lookinto her eyes. His fingers dug into her skin, not enough to cut off her air but enough that shewould have bruises later. If there was a later."I know the guardians will come because Rose is watching," said Dimitri. "Arent you, Rose?"Loosening his hold a little, he ran his fingertips over the skin of Lissas throat, so gently... yetthere was no question he had the power to snap her neck.It was like he was looking into my eyes at the moment. My soul. I even felt like he was strokingmy neck. I knew it was impossible. The bond existed between Lissa and me. No one else couldsee it. Yet, just then, it was like no one else existed but him and me. It was like there was noLissa between us."Youre in there, Rose." A pitiless half smile played over his mouth. "And you wont abandoneither of them. You also arent foolish enough to come alone, are you? Maybe once you wouldhave--but not anymore."I jerked out of her head, unable to stare into those eyes--and see them staring back at me.Whether it was my own fear or a mirroring of Lissas, I discovered my body was also trembling.I forced it to stop and tried to slow my racing heart. Swallowing, I glanced around to see ifanyone had noticed, but they were all preoccupied with discussing strategy--except for Tasha.Her cool blue gaze studied me, her face drawn with concern. "What did you see?"I shook my head, unable to look at her either. "A nightmare," I murmured. "My worst nightmarecoming true." Chapter SixteenI DIDNT HAVE A PRECISE count of how many Strigoi were with Dimitris group. So much ofwhat Id seen through Lissa had been blurred with confusion and terror. The guardians, knowingwe were expected, had simply had to make a best guess about how many to send. Hans hadhoped overwhelming force would make up for us losing the element of surprise. Hed dispatched
  • as many guardians as he could reasonably clear from the Court. Admittedly, the Court wasprotected by wards, but it still couldnt be left entirely undefended.Having the new grads there had helped. Most of them had been left behind, allowing theseasoned guardians to go on our hunting party. That left us with forty or so. It was as unusual aslarge groups of Strigoi banding together. Guardians were usually sent out in pairs, maybe groupsof three at most, with Moroi families. This large of a force had the potential to bring about abattle rivaling that of the Academy attack.Knowing that sneaking through the dark wouldnt work, Hans stopped our convoy a little waysfrom the warehouse the Strigoi were holed up at. The building was situated on a service roadcutting off from the highway. It was an industrial area, hardly a deserted path in the woods, butall the businesses and factories were shut down this late at night. I stepped out of the SUV,letting the warm evening wrap around me. It was humid, and the moisture in the air feltespecially oppressive when I was already smothered with fear.Standing beside the road, I felt no nausea. Dimitri hadnt posted Strigoi this far, which meant ourarrival was still--kind of--a surprise. Hans walked over to me, and I gave him the best estimate Icould on the situation, based on my limited information."But you can find Vasilisa?" he asked.I nodded. "As soon as Im in the building, the bond will lead me straight to her."He turned, staring off into the night as cars sped by on the nearby highway. "If theyre alreadywaiting outside, theyll smell and hear us long before we see them." Passing headlights brieflyilluminated his face, which was lined in thought. "You said there are three layers of Strigoi?""As far as I could tell. There are some on Lissa and Christian, then some outside." I paused,trying to think what Dimitri would do in this situation. Surely I knew him well enough, even as aStrigoi, to calculate his strategy. "Then another layer inside the building--before you get to the
  • storage room." I didnt know this for certain, but I didnt tell Hans. The assumption was made onmy own instincts, drawn from what I would do and what I thought Dimitri would do. I figured itwould be best if Hans planned for three waves of Strigoi.And thats exactly what he did. "Then we go in with three groups. Youll lead the group going infor the extraction. Another team will accompany yours and eventually split off. Theyll fightwhoevers right inside, letting your group head for the captives."It sounded so... militaristic. Extraction.Captives.And me... a team leader. It made sense with thebond, but always in the past, theyd simply used my knowledge and left me on the sidelines.Welcome to being a guardian, Rose. At school, wed conducted all sorts of exercises, running asmany different Strigoi scenarios as our instructors could dream up. Yet, as I stared up at thewarehouse, all of those drills seemed like playacting, a game that could in no way measure up towhat I was about to face. For half a second, the responsibility of it all seemed daunting, but Iquickly shoved aside such concerns. This was what I had been trained to do, what I had beenborn to do. My own fears didnt matter. They come first. Time to prove it."What are we going to do since we cant sneak up on them?" I asked. Hans had a point about theStrigoi detecting us in advance.An almost mischievous smile flickered on his face, and he explained his plan to the group whilealso dividing us into our teams. His approach tactic was bold and reckless. My kind of plan.And like that, we were off. An outsider analyzing us might have said we were on a suicidemission. Maybe we were. It honestly didnt matter. The guardians wouldnt abandon the lastDragomir. And I wouldnt have abandoned Lissa even if there were a million Dragomirs.So, with sneaking having been ruled out, Hans opted for a full-on attack. Our group loaded backinto the eight SUVs and tore off down the street at illegal speeds. We took up the entire width ofthe road, gambling on no oncoming traffic. Two SUVs led the charge side by side, then two rowsof three. We shot to the end of the road, came to a halt with screeching tires at the front of thewarehouse, and spilled out of our cars. If slow stealth wasnt an option, wed gain surprise bygoing fast and furious.
  • Some of the Strigoi were indeed surprised. Clearly, theyd seen our approach, but it hadhappened so fast that theyd had only a little time to react. Of course, when you were as fast anddeadly as Strigoi, a little time was all you needed. A group of them surged at us, and Hanss"outside team" charged back, those guardians putting themselves between my group and theother going inside. The Moroi fire users had been assigned to the outside group, for fear ofsetting the building on fire if they went inside.My team moved around the battle, inevitably running into a few Strigoi who hadnt fallen to thefirst teams distraction. With well-practiced determination, I ignored the nausea sweepingthrough me from being this close to Strigoi. Hans had strictly ordered me not to stop unless anyStrigoi were directly in my path, and he and another guardian were beside me to cover anythreats that might come at me. He wanted nothing to delay me from leading them to Lissa andChristian.We fought our way into the warehouse, entering a dingy hall blocked by Strigoi. Id been right inmy guess that Dimitri would have layers of security. A bottleneck formed in the small space, andfor a few moments things were chaotic. Lissa was so close. It was like she was calling to me, andI burned with impatience as I waited for the hall to clear. My team was in the back, letting theother group do the fighting. I saw Strigoi and guardians alike fall and tried not to let it distractme. Fight now, grieve later. Lissa and Christian. I had to focus on them."There," said Hans, tugging my arm. A gap had formed ahead of us. There were still plenty ofStrigoi, but they were distracted enough that my companions and I slipped through. We took offdown the hall, which opened into a large empty space that made up the warehouses heart. A fewpieces of trash and debris were all that was left of the goods once stored here.Doors led off of the room, but now I didnt need the bond to tell me where Lissa was. ThreeStrigoi stood guard outside a doorway. So. Four layers of security. Dimitri had one-upped me. Itdidnt matter. My group had ten people. The Strigoi snarled, bracing in anticipation as wecharged them. Through an unspoken signal, half of my group engaged them. The rest of usbusted down the door.
  • Despite my intense focus on reaching Lissa and Christian, one tiny thought had always beendancing in the back of my brain. Dimitri. I hadnt seen Dimitri in any of the Strigoi wedencountered. With my full attention on our attackers, I hadnt slipped into Lissas head to verifythe situation, but I felt totally confident that he was still inside the room. He would have stayedwith her, knowing I would come. He would be waiting to face me.One of them dies tonight. Lissa or Dimitri.Having reached our goal, I no longer needed extra protection. Hans pulled out his stake on thefirst Strigoi he encountered, pushing past me and jumping into the fray. The rest of my group didlikewise. We poured into the room, and if I thought thered been chaos earlier, it was nothingcompared to what we faced. All of us--guardians and Strigoi--just barely fit inside the room,which meant we were fighting in very, very close quarters. A female Strigoi--the one Dimitri hadslapped earlier--came at me. I fought on autopilot, barely aware of my stake piercing her heart.In this room, full of shouting and death and colliding, there were only three people in the worldthat mattered to me now: Lissa, Christian, and Dimitri.Id found him at last. Dimitri was with my two friends against the far wall. No one was fightinghim. He stood with arms crossed, a king surveying his kingdom as his soldiers battled the enemy.His eyes fell on me, his expression amused and expectant. This was where it would end. We bothknew it. I shoved my way through the crowd, dodging Strigoi. My colleagues pushed into thefray beside me, dispatching whom-ever stood in my way. I left them to their fight, movingtoward my objective. All of this, everything happening, had led to this moment: the finalshowdown between Dimitri and me."Youre beautiful in battle," said Dimitri. His cold voice carried to me clearly, even above theroar of combat. "Like an avenging angel come to deliver the justice of heaven.""Funny," I said, shifting my hold on the stake. "That is kind of why Im here.""Angels fall, Rose."
  • Id almost reached him. Through the bond, I felt a brief surge of pain from Lissa. A burning. Noone was harming her yet, but when I saw her arms move out of the corner of my eye, I realizedwhat had happened. Christian had done what shed asked: Hed burned her ropes. I saw her moveto untie him in return, and then my attention shifted back to Dimitri. If Lissa and Christian werefree, then so much the better. It would make their escape easier, once we cleared out the Strigoi.If we cleared out the Strigoi."Youve gone to a lot of trouble to get me here," I told Dimitri. "A lot of people are going to die--yours and mine."He shrugged, unconcerned. I was almost there. In front of me, a guardian battled a bald Strigoi.That lack of hair was not attractive with his chalk white skin. I moved around them."It doesnt matter," said Dimitri. He tensed as I approached. "None of them matter. If they die,then they obviously arent worthy.""Prey and predator," I murmured, recalling what hed said to me while holding me prisoner.Id reached him. No one stood between us now. This was different from our past fights, wherewed had lots of room to size each other up and plan our attacks. We were still crammed into theroom, and in keeping our distance from the others, wed closed the gap between us. That was adisadvantage for me. Strigoi outmatched guardians physically; extra room helped us compensatewith more maneuverability.I didnt need to maneuver quite yet, though. Dimitri was trying to wait me out, wanting me tomake the first move. He kept a good position, though, one that blocked me from getting a clearshot on his heart. I could do some damage if I cut him elsewhere with the stake, but he wouldlikely get a hit in on me that would be packed with power in this proximity. So I tried to wait himout as well.
  • "All this death is because of you, you know," he said. "If youd let me awaken you... let us betogether... well, none of this would have happened. Wed still be in Russia, in each others arms,and all of your friends here would be safe. None of them would have died. Its your fault.""And what about the people Id have to kill in Russia?" I demanded. Hed shifted his weight alittle. Was that an opening? "They wouldnt be safe if I--"A crashing sound off to my left startled me. Christian, now freed, had just slammed his chair intoa Strigoi engaged with a guardian. The Strigoi shrugged Christian off like a fly. Christian flewbackward, slamming into a wall and landing on the floor with a slightly stunned look. In spite ofmyself, I spared him a glance and saw Lissa running to his side. And so help me, she had a stakein her hand. How shed managed that, I had no idea. Maybe shed picked it up from a fallenguardian. Maybe none of the Strigoi had thought to search her when she came in. After all, whyon earth would a Moroi be carrying a stake?"Stop it! Stay out of the way!" I yelled at them, turning back to Dimitri. Letting those twodistract me had cost me. Realizing Dimitri was about to attack, I managed to dodge without evenseeing what he was doing. It turned out hed been reaching for my neck, and my impreciseevasion had spared me the full damage. Still, his hand caught me on the shoulder, knocking meback almost as far as Christian had gone. Unlike my friend, though, I had years of training thathad taught me to recover from something like that. Id honed a lot of balance and recovery skills.I staggered only a little, then quickly regained my footing.I could only pray Christian and Lissa would listen to me and not do anything stupid. Myattention had to stay on Dimitri, or Id get myself killed. And if I died, Lissa and Christian diedfor sure. My impression while fighting our way inside had been that the guardians outnumberedthe Strigoi, though that meant little sometimes. Still, I had to hope my colleagues would finishour foes off, leaving me to do what I had to do.Dimitri laughed at my dodge. "Id be impressed if that wasnt something a ten-year-old could do.Now your friends... well, theyre also fighting at a ten-year-old level. And for Moroi? Thatsactually pretty good."
  • "Yeah, well, well see what your assessment is when I kill you," I told him. I made a small feintto test how much he was paying attention. He sidestepped with hardly any notice at all, asgraceful as a dancer."You cant, Rose. Havent you figured that out by now? Havent you seen it? You cant defeat me.You cant kill me. Even if you could, you cant bring yourself to do it. Youll hesitate. Again."No, I wouldnt. Thats what he didnt realize. Hed made a mistake bringing Lissa here. Sheincreased the stakes--no pun intended--on everything. She was here. She was real. Her life wason the line, and for that... for that, I wouldnt hesitate.Dimitri must have grown tired of waiting for me. He leapt out, hand again going for my neck.And again I evaded, letting my shoulder take the brunt of the hit. This time he held on to myshoulder. He jerked me toward him, triumph flaring in those red eyes. In the sort of space wewere in, this was probably all he needed to kill me. He had what he wanted.Apparently, though, he wasnt the only one who wanted me. Another Strigoi, maybe thinkinghed help Dimitri, pushed toward us and reached for me. Dimitri bared his fangs, giving the otherStrigoi a look of pure hatred and fury."Mine!" Dimitri hissed, hitting the other Strigoi in a way that he had clearly not expected.And that was my opening. Dimitris brief distraction had caused him to loosen his grip on me.That same close proximity which made him so lethal to me now made me just as dangerous. Iwas by his chest, by his heart, and I had my stake in hand.Ill never be able to say for sure just how long the next series of events took. In some ways, it feltlike only one heartbeat passed. At the same moment, it was as though we were frozen in time.Like the entire world had stopped.
  • My stake was moving toward him, and as Dimitris eyes fell on me once more, I think he finallybelieved I would kill him. I was not hesitating. This was happening. My stake was there--And then it wasnt.Something hit me hard on my right side, pushing me away from Dimitri and ruining my shot. Istumbled, barely avoiding hitting anyone. While I always tried to be vigilant regarding all thingsaround me in a fight, Id let my guard down in that direction. The Strigoi and guardians were onmy left. The wall--and Lissa and Christian--were on my right.And it was Lissa and Christian who had shoved me out of the way.I think Dimitri was as astonished as I was. He was also equally astonished when Lissa cametoward him with that stake in her hand. And like lightning through the bond, I read what she hadvery, very carefully kept from me the last day: She had managed to charm the stake with spirit. Itwas the reason shed been so keyed up during her last stake-practice session with Grant andSerena. Knowing she had the tool she needed had fueled her desire to use it. Her hiding all ofthat information from me was a feat on par with charming the stake.Not that it mattered right now. Charmed stake or no, she couldnt get near Dimitri. He knew ittoo, and his surprise immediately changed to delighted amusement--almost indulgent, like theway one watches a child do something adorable. Lissas attack was awkward. She wasnt fastenough. She wasnt strong enough."No!" I screamed, leaping toward them, though pretty certain I wasnt going to be fast enougheither.Suddenly, a blazing wall of heat and flame appeared before me, and I barely had the presence ofmind to back up. That fire had shot up from the floor, forming a ring around Dimitri that kept mefrom him. It was disorienting, but only for a moment. I knew Christians handiwork.
  • "Stop it!" I didnt know what to do, if I should attack Christian or leap into the fire. "Youll burnus all alive!" The fire was fairly controlled--Christian had that much skill--but in a room thissize, even a controlled fire was deadly. Even the other Strigoi backed away.The flames were closing in on Dimitri, growing tighter and tighter. I heard him scream, could seethe look of agony, even through the fire. It began to consume his coat, and smoke poured outfrom the blaze. Some instinct told me I needed to stop this... and yet, what did it matter? Id cometo kill him. Did it matter if someone else did it for me?And thats when I noticed Lissa was still on the offensive. Dimitri was distracted, screaming asthe flames wrapped around him. I was screaming too... for him, for her... its hard to say. Lissasarm shot through the flames, and again, pain surged through the bond--pain that dwarfed theearlier singe from Christian burning her ropes. Yet she kept going, ignoring the fiery agony. Heralignment was right. She had the stake aimed at the heart.The stake went in, piercing him.Well, kind of.Just like when shed practiced with the pillow, she didnt quite have the strength to get the stakewhere it needed to go. I felt her steel herself, felt her summon up every ounce of strength shehad. Throwing her full weight into it, she shoved again, using both hands. The stake went infurther. Still not enough. This delay would have cost her her life in a normal situation. This wasnot a normal situation. Dimitri had no means to block her, not with the fire slowly eating him. Hedid manage a small struggle that loosened the stake, undoing what little progress shed made.Grimacing, she tried again, pushing the stake back to its former position.Still, it wasnt enough.I came to my senses then, knowing I needed to stop this. Lissa was going to burn herself up ifshe kept trying to stake him. She lacked the skill. Either I needed to stake him or we just needed
  • to let the fire finish him off. I moved forward. Lissa caught sight of me in her periphery and sentout a blast of compulsion at me.No! Let me do this!The command hit me hard, an invisible wall that made me come to a halt. I stood there dazed,both from the compulsion itself and the realization that shed used it on me. It only took amoment for me to shake it off. She was too distracted to put her full power into the order, and Iwas pretty compulsion-resistant anyway.Yet, that slight delay had stopped me from reaching her. Lissa seized her last chance, knowingshed get no other.One more time, fighting through the fires searing pain, she threw everything she had intoshoving the stake all the way into Dimitris heart. Her strike was still awkward, still requiring alittle more wiggling and pushing than the clean hit a trained guardian would make. Clumsy ornot, the stake finally made it. It pierced his heart. And as it did, I felt magic flood our bond, thefamiliar magic Id felt so many times when she performed a healing.Except... this was a hundred times more powerful than anything Id ever felt before. It froze meup as neatly as her compulsion had. I felt as though all of my nerves were exploding, like Id justbeen struck by lightning.White light suddenly burst out around her, a light that dwarfed the fires brightness. It was likesomeone had dropped the sun into the middle of that room. I cried out, my hand risinginstinctively to shield my eyes as I stepped backward. From the sounds in the room, everyoneelse was having a similar reaction.For a moment, it was as if there was no bond anymore. I felt nothing from Lissa--no pain, nomagic. The bond was as colorless and empty as the white light filling the room. The power shedused had over-flooded and overwhelmed our bond, numbing it.
  • Then the light simply disappeared. No fade-out. Just... gone in an eye blink. Like a switch hadbeen flipped. There was silence in the room, save for a few murmurings of discomfort andconfusion. That light must have been toxic to sensitive Strigoi eyes. It was hard enough for me.Starbursts danced in my sight. I couldnt focus on anything as the afterimage of that brillianceburned across my vision.At last--with a little squinting--I could vaguely see again. The fire was gone, though blacksmudges on the wall and ceiling marked its presence, as did some lingering smoke. By myestimation, there should have been a lot more damage. I could spare no time for that miracle,though, because there was another one taking place in front of me.Not just a miracle. A fairy tale.Lissa and Dimitri were both on the floor. Their clothes were burned and singed. Angry red andpink patches marked her beautiful skin from where the fire had hit hardest. Her hands and wristswere particularly bad. I could see spots of blood where the flames had actually burned some ofher skin away. Third-degree burns, if I was recalling my physiology classes correctly. Yet sheseemed to feel no pain, nor did the burns affect her hands movement.She was stroking Dimitris hair.While she sat in some semblance of an upright position, he was in an ungainly sprawl. His headrested in her lap, and she was running her fingers through his hair in a gentle, repetitive motion--like one does to comfort a child or even an animal. Her face, even marred with the fires terribledamage, was radiant and filled with compassion. Dimitri had called me an avenging angel, butshe was an angel of mercy as she gazed down at him and crooned soothing, nonsense words.With the state of his clothes and what Id seen in the fire, Id expected him to be burned to acrisp--some sort of blackened, skeletal nightmare. Yet when he shifted his head, giving me myfirst full view of his face, I saw that he was completely unharmed. No burns marked his skin--skin that was as warm and tanned as it had been the first day Id met him. I caught only a glimpse
  • of his eyes before he buried his face against Lissas knee. I saw endless depths of brown, thedepths Id fallen into so many times. No red rings.Dimitri... was not a Strigoi.And he was weeping. Chapter SeventeenTHE ENTIRE ROOM SEEMED to hold its breath.Yet even in the face of miracles, guardians--or Strigoi, for that matter--were hard to distract.Fights that had paused now resumed with just as much fury. The guardians had the upper hand,and those of them who werent engaged with the last surviving Strigoi suddenly leapt towardLissa, trying to pull her away from Dimitri. To everyones surprise, she held on to him tightlyand made a few feeble attempts to fight off those crowding around her. She was fierce andprotective, again putting me in mind of a mother defending her child.Dimitri was holding on to her just as intently, but both he and Lissa were outmatched. Theguardians finally pried them apart. There were confused shouts as guardians tried to determinewhether they should kill Dimitri. It wouldnt have been hard. He was helpless now. He couldbarely stand when they jerked him to his feet.That woke me up. Id simply been staring, frozen and dumbstruck. Shaking off my daze, I sprangforward, though I wasnt sure who I was going for: Lissa or Dimitri."No! Dont!" I yelled, seeing some of the guardians move in with stakes. "Hes not what youthink! Hes not Strigoi! Look at him!"Lissa and Christian were shouting similar things. Someone grabbed me and pulled me back,telling me to let the others handle this. Without even thinking, I turned and punched my captor inthe face, discovering too late it was Hans. He fell back a little, seeming more surprised than
  • offended. Attacking him was enough to attract the attention of others, however, and soon I hadmy own group of guardians to fight off. My efforts didnt do any good, partially because I wasoutnumbered and partially because I couldnt take them on the same way Id attacked Strigoi.As the guardians hauled me out, I noticed then that Lissa and Dimitri had already been removedfrom the room. I demanded to know where they were, yelling that I had to see them. No onelistened to me. They dragged me away, out of the warehouse, passing a disturbing amount ofbodies. Most were Strigoi, but I recognized a few faces from the guardian regiment at the Court.I grimaced, even though I hadnt known them well. The battle was over, and our side had won--but at a great cost. The surviving guardians would be doing cleanup now. I wouldnt have beensurprised if Alchemists showed up, but at the moment, none of that was my concern."Wheres Lissa?" I kept demanding as I was shoved inside one of the SUVs. Two guardians slidin with me, one sitting on each side. I didnt know either of them. "Wheres Dimitri?""The princess has been taken to safety," one of the guardians said crisply. He and the other guystared straight ahead, and I realized neither was going to acknowledge the question aboutDimitri. He might as well not exist for any of them."Wheres Dimitri?" I repeated, speaking more loudly in the hopes that might get an answer. "Ishe with Lissa?"That got a reaction. "Of course not," said the guardian whod spoken before."Is he... is he alive?" It was one of the hardest questions Id ever asked, but I had to know. I hatedto admit it, but if I were in Hanss place, I wouldnt have been looking for miracles. I would havebeen exterminating anything I perceived as a threat."Yes," said the driver at last. "He... it... is alive."
  • And that was all I could get out of them, no matter how much I argued and demanded to bereleased from the car--and believe me, I did a lot of that. Their ability to ignore me was prettyimpressive, really. To be fair, Im not even sure that they knew what had happened. Everythinghad occurred so fast. The only thing these two knew was that theyd been ordered to escort meout of the building.I kept hoping someone I knew might join us in our SUV. Nope. Only more unknown guardians.No Christian or Tasha. Not even Hans--of course, that was understandable. He was probablyafraid Id accidentally punch him again.When we were loaded up and on the road, I finally gave up my badgering and sank back into theseat. Other SUVs had left with ours, but I had no clue whether my friends were in them.The bond between Lissa and me was still numb. After that initial shock where Id felt nothing, Idslowly regained a slight sense of her, telling me we were still connected and that she was alive.That was about it. With all that power that had blasted through her, it was almost like the bondhad been temporarily fried. The magic between us was fragile. Each time I tried to use the bondto check on her, it was as though Id stared too brightly at something and was still blinded. I justhad to assume it would reestablish itself soon because I needed her insight on what hadhappened.No, scratch insight. I needed to know what had happened, period. I was still in a bit of shock, andthe long ride back to Court allowed me time to process what few facts I had access to. Iimmediately wanted to jump to Dimitri but needed to start at the beginning if I really wanted toanalyze all that had occurred.First: Lissa had charmed a stake and withheld the info from me. When? Before her collegetrip?At Lehigh? While captive? It didnt matter.Second, in spite of her failed pillow attempts, she had gotten the stake into Dimitris heart. It hadbeen a struggle, but Christians fire had made it possible. I winced, recalling the burns Lissa hadsuffered during that ordeal. Id felt the pain of those before the bond blanked out, and Id also
  • seen the marks on her. Adrian wasnt the worlds best healer, but hopefully his magic would beenough to take care of her injuries.The third and final fact here... well... was it a fact? Lissa had stabbed Dimitri and used the samemagic she would for a healing... and then? That was the big question. What had happened, asidefrom what felt like a nuclear explosion of magic through our bond? Had I really seen what Ithought Id seen?Dimitri had... changed.He was no longer a Strigoi. I felt it in my heart, even though Id only had that brief glimpse ofhim. It had been enough to allow me to see the truth. The Strigoi features were gone. Lissa haddone everything Robert had sworn she needed to do to restore a Strigoi, and certainly after allthat magic... well, it was easy to believe anything was possible. That image of Dimitri came backto me, clinging to Lissa with tears running down his face. Id never seen him so vulnerable.Somehow, I didnt believe Strigoi cried.Something in my heart twisted painfully, and I blinked rapidly to stop from crying too. Glancingaround, I tuned back into my surroundings. Outside the car, the sky was lightening. It was nearlysunrise. The guardians with me had signs of weariness on their faces, yet the alert expressions intheir eyes never faltered. Id lost track of the time, but my internal clock told me wed been on theroad for a while. We had to almost be back at Court.Tentatively, I touched the bond and found it was back but still fragile. It was like it flickered inand out, still reestablishing itself. That was enough to put me at ease, and I breathed a sigh ofrelief. When the bond had first come about years ago, it had been so strange... surreal. Now Idaccepted it as part of my life. Its absence today had felt unnatural.Looking through Lissas eyes, at the SUV she rode in, I immediately hoped Id see Dimitri withher. That one glimpse at the warehouse hadnt been enough. I needed to see him again, needed tosee if this miracle had truly happened. I wanted to drink in those features, to gaze at the Dimitrifrom so long ago. The Dimitri I loved.
  • But he wasnt with Lissa. Christian was there, however, and he glanced over at her as she stirred.Shed been asleep and still felt groggy. That, combined with the aftereffect of that searing powerearlier, kept our connection a little hazy. Things shifted out of focus for me off and on, butoverall, I could follow what was happening."How do you feel?" asked Christian. His voice and his eyes as he peered at her were filled withso much affection that it seemed impossible she didnt notice. But then, she was a littlepreoccupied right now."Tired.Worn out. Like... I dont know. Like Ive been thrown around in a hurricane. Or run overby a car. Pick something horrible, and thats what I feel like."He gave her a small smile and gently touched her cheek. Opening myself to her senses more, Ifelt the pain of her burns and that he was tracing the skin near one, though being careful to keepaway from it."Is it awful?" she asked him. "Is all my skin melted off? Do I look like some alien?""No," he said, with a small laugh. "Theres not that much. Youre beautiful, like always. It wouldtake a lot for that to change."The throbbing pain she felt made her think that there was more damage than he was admitting to,but the compliment and the way hed said it went a long way to soothe her. For a moment, herwhole existence focused on his face and the way the rising sun was starting to light it up.Then the rest of her world came crashing down on her."Dimitri! I need to see Dimitri!"
  • There were guardians in the car, and she glanced around at them as she spoke. As with me, noone seemed willing to acknowledge him or what had happened."Why cant I see him? Whyd you take him away?" This was directed to anyone who wouldanswer, and at last, Christian did."Because they think hes dangerous.""Hes not. Hes just... He needs me. Hes hurting inside."Christians eyes suddenly went wide, his face filling with panic. "Hes not... You arent bonded tohim, are you?"I guessed by the look on his face that Christian was recalling Avery and how bonding withmultiple people had pushed her over the edge. Christian hadnt been there for Robertsexplanation of the soul going to the world of the dead and how restored Strigoi didnt get bonded.Lissa shook her head slowly. "No... I just know. When I... when I healed him, we had thisconnection, and I felt it. What I had to do... I cant explain it." She ran a hand through her hair,frustrated that she couldnt put her magic into words. Weariness was starting to overtake her. "Itwas like I had to do surgery on his soul," she said at last."They think hes dangerous," repeated Christian gently."Hes not!" Lissa glared around at the rest of the cars occupants, all of whom were lookingsomewhere else. "Hes not Strigoi anymore."
  • "Princess," began one of the guardians uneasily, "no one really knows what happened. You cantbe sure that--""I am sure!" she said, voice too loud for the small space. There was a regal, commanding air to it."I know. I saved him. I brought him back. I know with every single part of me that hes no longerStrigoi!"The guardians looked uncomfortable, again not speaking. I think they were just confused, andreally, how could they not be? There was no precedent for this."Shh," said Christian, putting his hand on hers. "Theres nothing you can do until were back atCourt. Youre still hurt and exhausted--its written all over you."Lissa knew he was right. She was hurt, and she was exhausted. That magic had ripped her apart.At the same time, what she had done for Dimitri had created a bond to him--not a magical one,but a psychological one. She really was like a mother. She felt desperately protective andconcerned."I need to see him," she said.She did? What about me?"You will," said Christian, sounding more certain than I suspected he was. "But just try to restnow.""I cant," she said, even while stifling a yawn.That smile flickered back across his lips, and he slipped his arm around her, pulling her as closeas the seat belts would allow. "Try," he told her.
  • She rested her head against his chest, and his closeness was a type of healing in and of itself.Worry and concern for Dimitri still coursed through her, but her bodys needs were stronger forthe moment. At last, she drifted into sleep in Christians embrace, just barely hearing himmurmur, "Happy birthday."Twenty minutes later, our convoy arrived back at Court. I thought this meant instant freedom,but my guardians took their time in getting out, waiting for some signal or directions that no onehad bothered to tell me about. It turned out they were waiting for Hans."No," he said, firmly putting a hand on my shoulder as I shot out of the car and tried to raceaway to... well, I wasnt sure where. Wherever Dimitri was. "Hold on.""I have to see him!" I exclaimed, trying to push past. Hans was like a brick wall. Consideringhed actually fought a lot more Strigoi than me tonight, youd have thought hed be tired. "Youhave to tell me where he is."To my surprise, Hans did. "Locked away.Far, far out of your reach.Or anyone elses. I know heused to be your teacher, but its better if hes kept away for now."My brain, weary from the nights activities and overwrought with emotion, took a moment toprocess this. Christians words came back to me. "Hes not dangerous," I said. "Hes not a Strigoianymore.""How can you be so certain?"The same question Lissa had been asked. How could we really answer that? We knew becausewed gone to incredible pains to find out how to transform a Strigoi, and when wed completedthose steps, thered been an atom bomb of magic. Wasnt that enough proof for anyone? HadntDimitris appearance been enough?
  • Instead, my answer was like Lissas. "I just know."Hans shook his head, and now I could see he actually was exhausted. "No one knows whatsgoing on with Belikov. Those of us that were there... well, Im not sure what I saw. All I do knowis that he was leading Strigoi a little while ago, and now hes out in the sun. It doesnt make anysense. No one knows what he is.""Hes a dhampir.""And until we do," he continued, ignoring my comment, "Belikov has to stay locked up while weexamine him." Examine? I didnt like the sound of that. It made Dimitri seem like a lab animal. Itmade my temper flare, and I nearly started yelling at Hans. A moment later, I got myself undercontrol."Then I need to see Lissa.""Shes been taken to the medical center for treatment--which she needs very badly. You cant gothere," he added, anticipating my next response. "Half the guardians are there. Its chaos, andyoud be in the way.""Then what the hell am I supposed to do?""Go get some sleep." He gave me a wry look. "I still think youve got a bad attitude, but afterwhat I saw back there... well, Ill say this. You know how to fight. We need you--probably formore than paperwork. Now go take care of yourself."And that was that. The dismissal in his voice was clear, and as the guardians hurried around, itwas like I didnt exist. Whatever trouble Id been in before seemed long forgotten. No more filingin the wake of this. But what was I supposed to do? Was Hans crazy? How could I sleep? I had
  • to do something. I had to see Dimitri--but I didnt know where theyd taken him. Probably thesame jail Victor had been kept in, which was inaccessible to me. I also needed to see Lissa--butshe was deep in the medical center. I had no power here. I needed to appeal to someone withinfluence.Adrian!If I went to Adrian, maybe he could pull some strings. He had his royal connections. Hell, thequeen loved him, in spite of his slacker ways. As much as it killed me to accept, I was realizingthat getting in to see Dimitri right away was going to be nearly impossible. But the medicalcenter? Adrian might be able to get me in to see Lissa, even if it was crowded and chaotic. Thebond was still blurry, and talking to her directly would allow me to score faster answers aboutDimitri. Plus, I wanted to see for myself that she was all right.Yet when I reached the housing Adrian stayed in at Court, I was informed by the doorman thatAdrian had already left a little while ago to--ironically enough--go to the medical center. Igroaned. Of course hed already be there. With his healing abilities, they would have summonedhim out of bed. Weak or not, he could definitely help."Were you there?" the doorman asked me as I started to turn away."What?" For a minute I thought he was talking about the medical center."The battle with the Strigoi!The rescue. Weve been hearing all sorts of things.""Already? What did you hear?"The guys eyes were wide and excited. "They say almost every guardian died. But that youcaptured a Strigoi and brought him back."
  • "No, no... there were more injuries than deaths. And the other..." For a moment, I couldntbreathe. What had happened? What had really happened with Dimitri? "A Strigoi was changedback to a dhampir."The doorman stared. "Were you hit on the head?""Im telling the truth! Vasilisa Dragomir did it. With her spirit power. Spread that around."I left him with his mouth hanging open. And like that, I had no more options, no one else to getinformation from. I went back to my room feeling defeated but far too keyed up to sleep. Atleast, thats what I initially thought. After some pacing, I sat on the bed to try to come up with aplan. Yet before long, I felt myself falling into a heavy sleep.I awoke with a start, confused and aching in parts of my body that I hadnt realized had taken hitsin the fight. I peered at the clock, astonished at how long Id slept. In vampire time, it was latemorning. Within five minutes, I had showered and put on non-torn, non-bloody clothes. Just likethat, I was out the door.People were out and about their daily business, yet every couple or group I passed seemed to betalking about the battle at the warehouse--and about Dimitri."You know she can heal," I heard one Moroi guy say to his wife. "Why not Strigoi?Why not thedead?""Its insane," the woman countered. "Ive never believed in this spirit thing anyway. Its a lie tocover up the fact that the Dragomir girl never specialized."I didnt hear the rest of their conversation, but others I passed had similar themes. People wereeither convinced the whole thing was a scam or were regarding Lissa as a saint already. Every sooften, Id heard something weird, like that the guardians had captured a bunch of Strigoi to
  • experiment on. In all the speculation, though, I never heard Dimitris name come up or knewwhat was really happening to him.I followed the only plan I had: Go to the guardian building that held the Courts jail, though I wasunsure what Id actually do when I got there. I wasnt even entirely sure that was where Dimitristill was, but it seemed the most likely place. When I passed a guardian along the way, it took meseveral seconds to realize I knew him. I came to a halt and turned."Mikhail!" He glanced back and, seeing me, walked over. "Whats going on?" I asked, relieved tosee a friendly face. "Have they let Dimitri out?"He shook his head. "No, theyre still trying to figure out what happened. Everyones confused,even though the princess still swore up and down after she saw him that hes not Strigoianymore."There was a wonder in Mikhails voice--and wistfulness too. He was hoping that it was true, thatthere might be a chance for his beloved to be saved. My heart ached for him. I hoped he andSonya could have a happy ending just like--"Wait. What did you say?" His words drew my romantic musings to a halt. "Did you say Lissasaw him? You mean after the fight?" I immediately reached for the bond. It was graduallygrowing clearer--but Lissa was asleep, so I learned nothing."He asked for her," Mikhail explained. "So they let her in--guarded, of course."I stared, my jaw nearly dropping to the ground. Dimitri was seeing visitors. They were actuallyletting him see visitors. The knowledge lit up the dark mood that had been building in me. Iturned away. "Thanks, Mikhail.""Wait, Rose--"
  • But I didnt stop. I ran to the guardians holding building at a full-out sprint, oblivious to thelooks I got. I was too excited, too invigorated with this new info. I could see Dimitri. I couldfinally be with him, back the way he was supposed to be."You cant see him."I literally came to a halt when the guardian on duty in the front reception area stopped me."Wh-what? I need to see Dimitri.""No visitors.""But Lissa--er, Vasilisa Dragomir got to see him.""He asked for her."I stared incredulously. "He must have asked for me too."The guardian shrugged. "If he did, no ones told me."The anger Id kept back last night finally awoke. "Then go find someone who knows! Dimitriwants to see me. You have to let me in. Whos your boss?"The guardian scowled at me. "Im not going anywhere until my shift is over. If youve gotclearance, someone will let you know. Until then, no one without special permission is allowedto go down there."
  • After taking out a fair portion of Tarasovs security, I felt pretty confident I could easily dispatchthis guy. However, I felt equally confident that once I got to the depths of the jail cells, Id runinto a lot more guardians. For a second, taking them out seemed very reasonable. It was Dimitri.I would do anything for him. A slight stirring in the bond made me see reason. Lissa had justwoken up."Fine," I said. I lifted my chin and gave him a haughty look. "Thanks for the help." I didnt needthis loser. Id go to Lissa.She was staying at almost the opposite end of the Courts grounds from the holding area, and Icovered the distance at a light jog. When I finally reached her and she opened the door to herroom, I saw that shed gotten ready almost as quickly as I had. In fact, I could feel that shed beenpretty close to leaving. Studying her face and hands, I was relieved to see that almost all of theburns were gone. A few red spots lingered on her fingers, but that was it. Adrians handiwork. Nodoctor could have made that happen. In a pale blue tank top, with her blond hair pulled back, shedidnt look at all like anyone whod been through such a major ordeal less than twenty-four hoursago."Are you okay?" she asked. In spite of everything else that had happened, shed never stoppedworrying about me."Yeah, fine." Physically, at least."You?"She nodded. "Fine.""You look good," I said. "Last night... I mean, I was pretty scared. With the fire..." I couldntquite finish."Yeah," she said, looking away from me. She seemed nervous and uncomfortable. "Adriansbeen pretty great healing people."
  • "Is that where youre going?" There was agitation and restlessness in the bond. It would makesense if she wanted to hurry over to the medical center and help out too. Except... further probinggave me the startling truth. "Youre going to see Dimitri!""Rose--""No," I said eagerly. "Its perfect. Ill go with you. I was just over there, and they wouldnt let mein.""Rose--" Lissa looked very uncomfortable now."They gave me some bullshit about how hed asked for you and not me and that thats why theycouldnt let me in. But if youre going, theyll have to let me.""Rose," she said firmly, finally breaking through my chatter. "You cant go.""I--what?" I replayed her words, just in case Id misheard them. "Of course I can. I need to seehim. You know I do. And he needs to see me."She slowly shook her head, still looking nervous--but also sympathetic. "That guardian wasright," she said. "Dimitri hasnt been asking for you. Only me."All my eagerness, all that fire, froze up. I was dumbstruck, confused more than anything."Well..." I recalled how hed clung to her last night, that desperate look on his face. I hated toadmit it, but it kind of made sense why he would have asked for her first. "Of course hed want tosee you. Everythings so new and strange, and youre the one who saved him. Once he comesaround more, hell want to see me too."
  • "Rose, you cant go." This time the sadness in Lissas voice was mirrored through the bond,flooding into me. "Its not just that Dimitri didnt ask to see you. He asked specifically not to seeyou." Chapter EighteenTHE THING THAT REALLY SUCKS about being psychically linked to someone is that youhave a pretty good idea when theyre lying--or, in this case, not lying. Still, my response wasimmediate and instinctive."Thats not true.""Isnt it?" She gave me a pointed look. She too knew that I could feel the truth in her words."But that... it cant... " I wasnt at a loss for words very often--and certainly not with Lissa. Sofrequently in our relationship, Id been the one being assertive and explaining to her why thingshad to be the way they were. Somewhere along the way, with me not realizing it, Lissa had lostthat fragility."Im sorry," she said, voice still kind but also firm. The bond betrayed how much she hatedtelling me unpleasant things. "He asked me... told me specifically not to let you come. That hedoesnt want to see you."I stared at her pleadingly, my voice almost childlike. "But why? Why would he say that? Ofcourse he wants to see me. He must be confused....""I dont know, Rose. All I know is what he told me. Im so sorry." She reached for me like shemight hug me, but I stepped away. My head was still reeling."Ill go with you anyway. Ill wait upstairs with the other guardians. Then, when you tell DimitriIm there, hell change his mind."
  • "I dont think you should," she said. "He seemed really serious about you not coming--almostfrantic. I think knowing youre there would upset him.""Upset him? Upset him? Liss, its me! He loves me. He needs me."She winced, and I realized Id been shouting at her. "Im just going on what he said. Its all soconfusing... please. Dont put me in this position. Just... wait and see what happens. And if youwant to know whats going on, you can always..."Lissa didnt finish, but I knew what she was suggesting. She was offering to let me see hermeeting with Dimitri through the bond. It was a big gesture on her part--not that she could havestopped me if I wanted to do it. Still, she didnt usually like the idea of being "spied" on. Thiswas the best thing she could think of to make me feel better.Not that it really did. All of this was still crazy. Me being denied access to Dimitri. Dimitriallegedly not wanting to see me! What the hell? My gut reaction was to ignore everything shedjust said and go along with her, demanding access when she arrived. The feelings in the bondwere begging me not to, though. She didnt want to create trouble. She might not understandDimitris wishes either, but she felt they should be honored until the situation could be betterassessed."Please," she said. The plaintive word finally cracked me."Okay." It killed me to say it. It was like admitting defeat. Think of it as a tactical retreat."Thank you." This time she did hug me. "I swear Ill get more information and figure out whatsgoing on, okay?"I nodded, still dejected, and we walked out of the building together. With grim reluctance, Iparted with her when the time came, letting her go off to the guardians building while I headed
  • toward my room. As soon as she was out of my sight, I immediately slipped into her head,watching through her eyes as she walked through the perfectly manicured grass. The bond wasstill a little hazy but growing clearer by the minute.Her feelings were a jumble. She felt bad for me, guilty that shed had to refuse me. At the sametime, she was anxious to visit Dimitri. She needed to see him too--but not in the same way I did.She still had that feeling of responsibility for him, that burning urge to protect him.When she arrived at the buildings main office, the guardian whod stopped me gave her a nod ofgreeting and then made a quick phone call. A few moments later, three guardians entered andgestured for Lissa to follow them into the depths of the building. They all looked unusually grim,even for guardians."You dont have to do this," one of them told her. "Just because he keeps asking...""Its fine," she said with the cool, dignified air of any royal. "I dont mind.""Therell be plenty of guards around just like last time. You dont need to worry about yoursafety."She gave all of them a sharp look. "I was never worried about it to begin with."Their descent into the buildings lower levels brought back painful memories of when Dimitriand I had visited Victor. That had been the Dimitri Id had a perfect union with, the Dimitri whounderstood me entirely. And after the visit, hed been enraged at Victors threats against me.Dimitri had loved me so much that hed been willing to do anything to protect me.A key card-protected door finally allowed access to the holding level, which consisted mostly ofa long hallway lined with cells. It didnt have the depressing feel that Tarasov had had, but thisplaces stark and steel-lined industrial air didnt exactly inspire warm and fuzzy feelings.
  • Lissa could hardly walk down the hall because it was so crowded with guardians. All thatsecurity for one person. It wasnt impossible for a Strigoi to break through a cells steel bars, butDimitri was no Strigoi. Why couldnt they see that? Were they blind?Lissa and her escort made their way through the crowd and came to a stop in front of his cell. Itwas as cold looking as everything else in this prison area, with no more furnishings than wereabsolutely required. Dimitri sat on the narrow bed, his legs drawn up to him as he leaned into acorner of the wall and kept his back to the cells entrance. It wasnt what I had expected. Whywasnt he beating at the bars? Why wasnt he demanding to be released and telling them hewasnt a Strigoi? Why was he taking this so quietly?"Dimitri."Lissas voice was soft and gentle, filled with a warmth that stood out against the harshness of thecell. It was the voice of an angel.And as Dimitri slowly turned around, it was obvious he thought so too. His expressiontransformed before our eyes, going from bleakness to wonder.He wasnt the only one filled with wonder. My mind might have been tied to Lissas, but backacross Court, my own body nearly stopped breathing. The glimpse Id gotten of him last nighthad been amazing. But this... this full-on view of him looking at Lissa--at me--was awe-inspiring. It was a wonder. A gift.A miracle.Seriously. How could anyone think he was a Strigoi? And how could I have possibly let myselfbelieve the Dimitri Id been with in Siberia was this one? Hed cleaned up from the battle andwore jeans and a simple black T-shirt. His brown hair was tied back into a short ponytail, and afaint shadow across his lower face showed that he needed to shave. Probably no one would lethim get near a razor. Regardless, it almost made him look sexier--more real, more dhampir.More alive. His eyes were what really pulled it all together. His death white skin--now gone--had
  • always been startling, but those red eyes had been the worst. Now they were perfect. Exactly asthey used to be.Warm and brown and long-lashed. I could have gazed at them forever."Vasilisa," he breathed. The sound of his voice made my chest tighten. God, Id missed hearinghim speak. "You came back."As soon as he began approaching the bars, the guardians around Lissa started closing rank, readyto stop him should he indeed bust through. "Back off!" she snapped in a queenly tone, glaring ateveryone around her. "Give us some space." No one reacted right away, and she put more powerinto her voice. "I mean it! Step back!"I felt the slightest trickle of magic through our link. It wasnt a huge amount, but she was backingher words with a little spirit-induced compulsion. She could hardly control such a large group,but the command had enough force to make them clear out a little and create space between herand Dimitri. She turned her attention back to him, demeanor instantly changing from fierce tokind."Of course I came back. How are you? Are they..." She cast a dangerous look at the guardians inthe hall. "Are they treating you okay?"He shrugged. "Fine. Nobodys hurting me." If he was anything like his old self, he would havenever admitted if anyone was hurting him. "Just a lot of questions.So many questions." Hesounded weary, again... very unlike a Strigoi who never needed rest. "And my eyes. They keepwanting to examine my eyes.""But how do you feel?" she asked. "In your mind?In your heart?" If the whole situation hadntbeen so sobering, I would have been amused. It was very much a therapists line of questioning--something both Lissa and I had experienced a lot of. Id hated being asked those questions, butnow I truly wanted to know how Dimitri felt.His gaze, which had so intently focused on her, now drifted away and grew unfocused. "Its... itshard to describe. Its like Ive woken up from a dream. A nightmare. Like Ive been watching
  • someone else act through my body--like I was at a movie or a play. But it wasnt someone else. Itwas me. All of it was me, and now here I am, and the whole world has shifted. I feel like Imrelearning everything.""Itll pass. Youll get more used to it, once you settle back into your old self." That was a guesson her part, but one she felt confident of.He inclined his head toward the gathered guardians. "They dont think so.""They will," she said adamantly. "We just need more time." A small silence fell, and Lissahesitated before speaking her next words. "Rose... wants to see you."Dimitris dreamy, morose attitude snapped in a heartbeat. His eyes focused back on Lissa, and Igot my first glimpse of true, intense emotion from him. "No. Anyone but her. I cant see her.Dont let her come here. Please."Lissa swallowed, unsure how to respond. The fact that she had an audience made it harder. Thebest she could do was lower her voice so the others wouldnt hear. "But... she loves you. Shesworried about you. What happened... with us being able to save you? Well, a lot of it wasbecause of her.""You saved me.""I only did the final piece. The rest... well, Rose did, um, a lot." Say, like, organizing a prisonbreak and releasing fugitives.Dimitri turned from Lissa, and the fire that had briefly lit his features faded. He walked over tothe side of the cell and leaned against the wall. He closed his eyes for a few seconds, took a deepbreath, and then opened them.
  • "Anyone but her," he repeated. "Not after what I did to her. I did a lot of things... horriblethings." He turned his hands palm-up and stared at them for a moment, like he could see blood."What I did to her was worst of all--especially because it was her. She came to save me from thatstate, and I..." He shook his head. "I did terrible things to her. Terrible things to others. I cantface her after that. What I did was unforgivable.""Its not," said Lissa urgently. "It wasnt you. Not really. Shell forgive you.""No. Theres no forgiveness for me--not after what I did. I dont deserve her, dont deserve toeven be around her. The only thing I can do..." He walked back over to Lissa, and to theastonishment of both of us, he fell to his knees before her. "The only thing I can do--the onlyredemption I can try for--is to pay you back for saving me.""Dimitri," she began uneasily, "I told you--""I felt that power. In that moment, I felt you bring my soul back. I felt you heal it. Thats a debt Icant ever repay, but I swear Ill spend the rest of my life trying." He was looking up at her, thatenraptured look back on his face."I dont want that. Theres nothing to repay.""Theres everything to pay," he argued. "I owe you my life--my soul. Its the only way I can comeclose to ever redeeming myself for all the things I did. Its still not enough... but its all I can do."He clasped his hands. "I swear, whatever you need, anything--if its in my power--Ill do it. Illserve and protect you for the rest of my life. Ill do whatever you ask. You have my loyaltyforever."Again, Lissa started to say she didnt want that, but then a canny thought came to mind. "Willyou see Rose?"
  • He grimaced. "Anything but that.""Dimitri--""Please. Ill do anything else for you, but if I see her... itll hurt too much."That was probably the only reason that could have made Lissa drop the subject. That and thedesperate, dejected look on Dimitris face. It was one she had never seen before, one Id neverseen before either. Hed always been so invincible in my eyes, and this sign of vulnerabilitydidnt make him seem weaker to me. It simply made him more complex. It made me love himmore--and want to help him.Lissa could only give him a small nod as answer before one of the guardians in charge said shehad to leave. Dimitri was still on his knees as they escorted her out, staring after her with anexpression that said she was the closest to any hope he had left in this world.My heart twisted with both sorrow and jealousy--and a bit of anger too. I was the one he shouldhave looked at that way. How dare he? How dare he act like Lissa was the greatest thing in theworld? Shed done a lot to save him, true, but I was the one whod traveled around the globe forhim. I was the one who had continually risked my life for him. Most importantly, I was the onewho loved him. How could he turn his back on that?Both Lissa and I were confused and upset as she left the building. Both of us were distraughtover Dimitris state. Despite how angry I was over his refusal to see me, I still felt horrible atseeing him so low. It killed me. Hed never acted that way before. After the Academys attack, hehad certainly been sad and had grieved over that loss. This was a different kind of despair. It wasa deep sense of depression and guilt that he didnt feel he could escape from. Both Lissa and Iwere shocked by that. Dimitri had always been a man of action, someone ready to get up after atragedy and fight the next battle.But this? This was unlike anything wed ever seen in him, and Lissa and I had wildly varyingideas on how to solve it. Her gentler, sympathetic approach was to keep talking to him while also
  • calmly persuading Court officials that Dimitri was no longer a threat. My solution to thisproblem was to go to Dimitri, no matter what he claimed he wanted. Id busted in and out of aprison. Getting into a jail cell should be cake. I was still certain that once he saw me, hed have achange of heart about all this redemption stuff. How could he truly think I wouldnt forgive him?I loved him. I understood. And as far as convincing officials that he wasnt dangerous... well, mymethod there was a little fuzzy still, but I had a feeling it would involve a lot of yelling andbeating on doors.Lissa knew perfectly well that I had observed her encounter with Dimitri, so she didnt feelobligated to come see me, not when she knew they could still use her over at the medical center.Shed heard Adrian had nearly collapsed with all the magic hed wielded to help others. It seemedso uncharacteristic of him, so unselfish... hed done amazing deeds, at great cost to himself.Adrian.There was a problem. I hadnt had a chance to see him since getting back after the warehousefight. And aside from hearing about him healing others, I really hadnt thought about him at all.Id said that if Dimitri really could be saved, it didnt mean the end of Adrian and me. Yet,Dimitri had barely been back twenty-four hours, and here I was, already obsessing ov--"Lissa?"Despite the fact that Id pulled back to my own mind, part of me was still absentmindedlyfollowing along with Lissa. Christian was standing outside the medical center, leaning against itswall. From his posture, it appeared as though hed been there for a while waiting for something--or rather, someone.She came to a halt, and inexplicably, all thoughts of Dimitri vanished from her mind. Oh, comeon. I wanted those two to patch things up, but we had no time for this. Dimitris fate was a lotmore important than bantering with Christian.
  • Christian didnt look like he was in a snarky mood, though. His expression was curious andconcerned as he regarded her. "How are you feeling?" he asked. They hadnt talked to each othersince the ride back, and shed been largely incoherent during a lot of it."Fine." She touched her face absentmindedly. "Adrian healed me.""I guess he is good for something." Okay, maybe Christian was feeling a little snarky today. Butonly a little."Adrians good for lots of things," she said, though she couldnt help a small smile. "He ranhimself into the ground here all night.""What about you? I know how you are. As soon as you were up and around, you were probablyright there beside him."She shook her head. "No. After he healed me, I went to see Dimitri."All mirth disappeared from Christians face. "Youve talked to him?""Twice now.But yeah. I have.""And?""And what?""Whats he like?"
  • "Hes like Dimitri." She suddenly frowned, reconsidering her words. "Well... not quite likeDimitri.""What, does he still have some Strigoi in him?" Christian straightened up, blue eyes flashing. "Ifhes still dangerous, you have no business going near--""No!" she exclaimed. "Hes not dangerous. And..." She took a few steps forward, returning hisglare. "Even if he was, you have no business telling me what I can or cant do!"Christian sighed dramatically. "And here I thought Rose was the only one who threw herself intostupid situations, regardless of whether they might kill her."Lissas anger flared up rapidly, likely because of all the spirit shed been using. "Hey, you didnthave any issues helping me stake Dimitri! You trained me for it.""That was different. We were in a bad situation already, and if things went wrong... well, I couldhave incinerated him." Christian regarded her from head to toe, and there was something in hisgaze... something that seemed like more than just objective assessment. "But I didnt have to.You were amazing. You made the hit. I didnt know if you could, but you did... and the fire...You didnt flinch at all, but it must have been awful...."There was a catch in his voice as he spoke, like he was only now truly assessing theconsequences of what might have happened to Lissa. His concern and admiration made her flush,and she tilted her head--an old trick--so that the pieces of hair that had escaped from her ponytailwould fall forward and hide her face. There was no need for it. Christian was now staringpointedly at the ground."I had to do it," she said at last. "I had to see if it was possible."He looked up. "And it was... right? There really isnt any trace of Strigoi?"
  • "None. Im positive. But no one believes it.""Can you blame them? I mean, I helped out with it and I wanted it to be true... but Im not sure Iever really, truly thought someone could come back from that." He glanced away again, his gazeresting on a lilac bush. Lissa could smell its scent, but the distant and troubled look on his facetold her that his thoughts werent on nature. Neither were they on Dimitri, I realized. He wasthinking about his parents. What if thered been spirit users around when the Ozeras had turnedStrigoi? What if there had been a way to save them?Lissa, not guessing what I had, remarked, "I dont even know that I believed either. But as soonas it happened, well... I knew. I know. Theres no Strigoi in him. I have to help him. I have tomake others realize it. I cant let them lock him up forever--or worse." Getting Dimitri out of thewarehouse without the other guardians staking him had been no easy feat for her, and sheshivered recalling those first few seconds after his change when everyone had been shouting tokill him.Christian turned back and met her eyes curiously. "What did you mean when you said he waslike Dimitri but not like Dimitri?"Her voice trembled a little when she spoke. "Hes... sad.""Sad? Seems like he should be happy he was saved.""No... you dont understand. He feels awful about everything he did as a Strigoi. Guilty,depressed. Hes punishing himself for it because he doesnt think he can be forgiven.""Holy shit," said Christian, clearly caught off guard. A few Moroi girls had walked by just thenand looked scandalized at his swearing. They hurried off, whispering among themselves.Christian ignored them. "But he couldnt help it--"
  • "I know, I know. I already went over it with him.""Can Rose help?""No," Lissa said bluntly.Christian waited, apparently hoping shed elaborate. He grew annoyed when she didnt. "What doyou mean she cant? She should be able to help us more than anyone!""I dont want to get into it." My situation with Dimitri bothered her a lot. That made two of us.Lissa turned toward the medical building. It looked regal and castle-like on the outside, but ithoused a facility as sterile and modern as any hospital. "Look, I need to get inside. And dontlook at me like that.""Like what?" he demanded, taking a few steps toward her."That disapproving, pissed-off look you get when you dont get your way.""I dont have that look!""You have it right now." She backed away from him, moving toward the centers door. "If youwant the whole story, we can talk later, but I dont have the time... and honestly... I dont reallyfeel like telling it."That pissed-off look--and she was right, he did have it--faded a little. Almost nervously, he said,"Okay. Later then. And Lissa..."
  • "Hmm?""Im glad youre all right. What you did last night... well, it really was amazing."Lissa stared at him for several heavy seconds, her heart rate rising slightly as she watched a lightbreeze ruffle his black hair. "I couldnt have done it without your help," she said at last. Withthat, she turned and went inside, and I returned completely to my own head.And like earlier, I was at a loss. Lissa would be busy the rest of the day, and standing and yellingin the guardians office wouldnt really help me get to Dimitri. Well, I supposed there was the offchance I might annoy them so much that theyd throw me in jail too. Then Dimitri and I wouldbe next to each other. I promptly dismissed that plan, fearing the only thing it would land mewith was more filing.What could I do? Nothing. I needed to see him again but didnt know how. I hated not having aplan. Lissas encounter with Dimitri hadnt been nearly long enough for me, and anyway, I felt itwas important to take him in through my eyes, not hers. And oh, that sadness... that utter look ofhopelessness. I couldnt stand it. I wanted to hold him, to tell him everything would be okay. Iwanted to tell him I forgave him and that wed make everything like it used to be. We could betogether, just the way we planned...The thought brought tears to my eyes, and left alone with my frustration and inactivity, I returnedto my room and flounced onto the bed. Alone, I could finally let loose the sobs Id been holdingin since last night. I didnt even entirely know what I was crying for. The trauma and blood of thelast day.My own broken heart.Dimitris sorrow.The cruel circumstances that had ruined our lives.Really, there were a lot of choices.I stayed in my room for a good part of the day, lost in my own grief and restlessness. Over andover, I replayed Lissas meeting with Dimitri, what hed said and how he looked. I lost track oftime, and it took a knock at the door to snap me out of my own suffocating emotions.
  • Hastily rubbing an arm over my eyes, I opened the door to find Adrian standing out there. "Hey,"I said, a little surprised by his presence--not to mention guilty, considering Id been moping overanother guy. I wasnt ready to face Adrian yet, but it appeared I had no choice now. "Do you... doyou want to come in?""Wish I could, little dhampir." He seemed to be in a hurry, not like hed come to have arelationship talk. "But this is just a drop-by visit to issue an invitation.""Invitation?" I asked. My mind was still on Dimitri. Dimitri, Dimitri, Dimitri. Chapter Nineteen"ARE YOU CRAZY?" I ASKED.He gave me the same wordless look he always did when I asked that question.I sighed and tried again. "A party? Thats pushing it, even for you. People just died! Guardians.Priscilla Voda." Not to mention, people had just come back from the dead. Probably best to leavethat part out. "This isnt the time to get trashed and play beer pong."I expected Adrian to say that it was always a good time for beer pong, but he remained serious."Actually, its because people died that theres going to be a party. Its not a kegger type. Maybepartys not even the right word. Its a..." He frowned, grasping at words. "A special event.An eliteone.""All royal parties are elite ones," I pointed out."Yeah, but not every royal is invited to this. Its the... well, elite of the elite."
  • That really wasnt helping. "Adrian--""No, listen." He made that familiar gesture of his that indicated frustration, running his handthrough his hair. "Its not so much a party as a ceremony. An old, old tradition from... I dontknow. Romania, I think. They call it the Death Watch. But its a way to honor the dead, a secretthats been passed on through the oldest bloodlines."Flashbacks of a destructive secret society at St. Vladimirs came back to me. "This isnt someMana thing, is it?""No, I swear. Please, Rose. Im not all that into it either, but my moms making me go, and Idreally like it if you were there with me."Elite and bloodline were warning words to me. "Will there be other dhampirs there?""No." He then added quickly, "But I made arrangements for some people youll approve of to bethere. Itll make it better for both of us.""Lissa?" I guessed. If ever there was an esteemed bloodline, hers was it."Yeah. I just ran into her at the medical center. Her reaction was about like yours."That made me smile. It also piqued my interest. I wanted to talk to her more about what hadhappened during her visit to Dimitri and knew shed been avoiding me because of it. If going tosome silly royal ritual or whatever it was could get me to her, then so much the better."Who else?"
  • "People youll like.""Fine. Be mysterious. Ill go to your cult meeting."That earned me a return smile. "Hardly a cult, little dhampir. It really is a way to pay lastrespects to the people killed in that fight." He reached out and ran a hand along my cheek. "AndIm glad... God, Im so glad you werent one of them. You dont know...." His voice caught, theflippant smile trembling for a moment before stabilizing again. "You dont know how worried Iwas. Every minute you were gone, every minute I didnt know what had happened to you... itwas agony. And even after I heard you were okay, I kept asking everyone at the medical centerwhat they knew. Had they seen you fight, did you get hurt..."I felt a lump in my throat. I hadnt been able to see Adrian when Id returned, but I should havesent a message, at least. I squeezed his hand and tried to make a joke of something that reallywasnt funny. "Whatd they say? That I was a badass?""Yeah, actually. They couldnt stop talking about how amazing you were in battle. Word gotback to Aunt Tatiana too about what you did, and even she was impressed."Whoa. That was a surprise. I started to ask more, but his next words brought me up short."I also heard you were yelling at anyone you could to find out about Belikov. And that you werebeating down the guardians doors this morning."I looked away. "Oh. Yeah. I... Look, Im sorry, but I had to--""Hey, hey." His voice was heavy and earnest. "Dont apologize. I understand."I looked up at him. "You do?"
  • "Look, its not like I didnt expect this if he came back."I glanced back at him hesitantly, studying his serious expression. "I know. I remember what yousaid before...."He nodded, then gave me another rueful smile. "Of course, I didnt actually expect any of this towork. Lissa tried to explain the magic she used... but good God. I dont think I could ever doanything like she did.""Do you believe?" I asked. "Do you believe hes no longer Strigoi?""Yeah. Lissa said hes not, and I believe her. And I saw him from a distance out in the sun. ButIm not sure its a good idea for you to try to see him.""Thats your jealousy talking." I had absolutely no right to sound accusing, considering the waymy heart was all tangled up over Dimitri."Of course its jealousy," said Adrian nonchalantly. "What do you expect? The former love ofyour life comes back--from the dead, no less. Thats not something Im really excited about. But Idont blame you for feeling confused.""I told you before--""I know, I know." Adrian didnt sound particularly upset. In fact, there was a surprisingly patienttone in his voice. "I know you said him coming back wouldnt affect things between us. Butsaying one thing before it happens and then actually having that thing happen are two differentthings."
  • "What are you getting at?" I asked, kind of confused."I want you, Rose." He squeezed my hand more tightly. "Ive always wanted you. I want to bewith you. Id like to be like other guys and say I want to take care of you too, but... well. When itcomes down to it, youd probably be the one taking care of me."I laughed in spite of myself. "Some days I think youre in more danger from yourself than anyoneelse. You smell like cigarettes, you know.""Hey, I have never, ever said I was perfect. And youre wrong. Youre probably the mostdangerous thing in my life.""Adrian--""Wait." With his other hand, he pressed his fingers over my lips. "Just listen. Itd be stupid forme to think that your old boyfriend coming back isnt going to have any effect on you. So do Ilike you wanting to see him? No, of course not. Thats instinct. But theres more, you know. I dobelieve that hes a dhampir again. Absolutely. But...""But what?" Adrians words had me more curious than ever now."But just because he isnt a Strigoi doesnt mean its entirely gone from him. Hold on." Adriancould see my mouth opening in outrage. "Im not saying hes evil or means to be evil or anythinglike that. But what he went through... Its huge. Epic. We really dont know much about thechanging process. What effect did that kind of life have on him? Are there violent parts of himthat might suddenly lash out? Thats what Im worried about Rose. I know you. I know you arentgoing to be able to help yourself. Youll have to see him and talk to him. But is it safe? Thatswhat no one knows. We dont know anything about this. We dont know if hes dangerous."
  • Christian had said the same thing to Lissa. I examined Adrian intently. It sounded like aconvenient excuse to keep Dimitri and me apart. Yet, I saw truth in those deep green eyes. Hemeant it. He was nervous about what Dimitri might do. Adrian had also been honest about beingjealous, which I had to admire. He hadnt ordered me not to see Dimitri or tried to dictate mybehavior. I liked that too. I extended my hand and laced my fingers with Adrians."Hes not dangerous. Hes... sad. Sad for what hes done. The guilts killing him.""I can imagine. I probably wouldnt forgive myself either if I suddenly realized Id been brutallykilling people for the last four months." Adrian pulled me to him and kissed the top of my head."And for everyones sake--yes, even his--I really hope he is exactly the way he was. Just becareful, okay?""I will," I said, kissing his cheek. "Inasmuch as I ever am."He grinned and released me. "Thats the best I can hope for. For now, Ive got to head back to myparents for a little bit. Ill come back for you at four, okay?""Okay. Is there anything I should wear to this secret party?""Nice dress clothes are fine."Something occurred to me. "If this is so elite and prestigious, how are you going to get a lowlydhampir like me in?""With this." Adrian reached for a bag hed set down upon entering. He handed it to me.
  • Curiously, I opened the bag and gaped at what I saw. It was a mask, one that just covered the tophalf of the face around the eyes. It was intricately worked with gold and green leaves andbejeweled flowers."A mask?" I exclaimed. "Were wearing masks to this thing? What is this, Halloween?"He winked. "See you at four."We didnt actually put on the masks until we arrived at the Death Watch. As part of the secretnature of it all, Adrian said we didnt want to call any attention to ourselves while going to it. Sowe walked across the Courts grounds dressed up--I wore the same dress Id worn to dinner at hisparents--but not getting much more notice than the two of us usually did when we were together.Besides, it was late, and a lot of the Court was getting ready for bed.Our destination surprised me. It was one of the buildings that non-royal Court workers lived in,one that was very near Mias. Well, I supposed the last place youd look for a royal party wouldbe at the home of a commoner. Except we didnt go to any of the apartments inside. Once westepped into the buildings lobby, Adrian indicated we should put our masks on. He then took meover to what appeared to be a janitors closet.It wasnt. Instead, the door opened to a staircase leading down into darkness. I couldnt see thebottom, which put me on high alert. I instinctively wanted to know the details of every situation Ientered. Adrian seemed calm and confident as he headed down, so I took it on faith he wasntleading me to some sacrificial altar. I hated to admit it, but curiosity over this Death Watch thingwas temporarily taking my mind off Dimitri.Adrian and I eventually reached another door, and this one had two guards. Both men wereMoroi, both masked like Adrian and me. Their postures were stiff and defensive. They saidnothing but simply looked at us expectantly. Adrian said a few words that sounded likeRomanian, and a moment later, one of the men unlocked the door and gestured us inside."Secret password?" I murmured to Adrian as we swept past.
  • "Passwords, actually.One for you and one for me. Every guest has a unique one."We stepped into a narrow tunnel lit only by torches embedded in the walls. Their dancing flamescast fanciful shadows as we passed by. From far ahead, the low murmur of conversation reachedus. It sounded surprisingly normal, like any conversation youd hear at a party. Based on Adriansdescription, Id half-expected to hear chanting or drums.I shook my head. "I knew it. They keep a medieval dungeon under the Court. Im surprised therearent chains on the walls.""Scared?" Adrian teased, clasping hold of my hand."Of this?Hardly. I mean, on the Rose Hathaway Scale of Scariness, this is barely a--"We emerged out of the hall before I could finish. An expansive room with vaulted ceilingsspread out before us, something that boggled my spatially challenged brain as I tried to recall justhow far underground wed gone. Wrought-iron chandeliers holding lit candles hung from theceiling, casting the same ghostly light the torches had. The walls were made of stone, but it was avery artful, pretty stone: gray with reddish flecks, polished into smooth round pieces. Someonehad wanted to keep the Old World dungeon feel but still have the place look stylish. It was atypical line of royal thinking.Fifty or so people were milling around the room, some huddled in groups. Like Adrian and me,they wore formal clothing and half masks. All the masks were different. Some had a floral themelike mine, while others were decorated with animals. Some simply had swirls or geometricdesigns. Even though the masks only covered half the guests faces, the sketchy lighting went along way to obscure any other identifying features. I scrutinized them carefully, hoping I mightpick out details that would give someone away.
  • Adrian led me out of the entryway and over toward a corner. As my view of the area expanded, Icould see a large fire pit in the middle of the room, embedded in the stone floor. No fire burnedin it, but everyone kept well away. For a moment, I had a disorienting flash of deja vu, thinkingback to my time in Siberia. Id been to a type of memorial ceremony there too--though hardlyone with masks or passwords--and everyone had sat around a bonfire outdoors. It had been inDimitris honor, as all those who had loved him sat and told stories about him.I tried to get a better look at the fire, but Adrian was intent on keeping us behind the bulk of thecrowd. "Dont bring attention to yourself," he warned."I was just looking.""Yeah, but anyone who looks too close is going to realize youre the shortest person here. Itd bepretty obvious youre a dhampir. This is elite old blood, remember?"I frowned at him as much as I could through the mask. "But I thought you said youd madearrangements for me to be here?" I groaned when he didnt answer. "Does making arrangementsmean just sneaking me in? If so, those guys were kind of crap security."Adrian scoffed. "Hey, we had the right passwords. Thats all it takes. I stole--er, borrowed themoff my moms list.""Your moms one of the people who helped organize this?""Yup. Her branch of the Tarus familys been deep inside this group for centuries. Theyapparently had a really big ceremony here after the school attack."I turned all of this over in my mind, trying to decide how I felt. I hated when people wereobsessed with status and appearances, yet it was hard to fault them wanting to honor those who
  • had been killed--particularly when a majority of them had been dhampirs. The Strigoi attack onSt. Vladimirs was a memory that would forever haunt me. Before I could ponder much further, afamiliar sensation swept me."Lissas here," I said, looking around. I could feel her nearby but didnt spot her immediately inthe sea of masks and shadows. "There."She stood apart from some of the others, wearing a rosehued dress and a white and gold maskwith swans on it. Through our link, I felt her searching for anyone she knew. I impulsivelystarted to go to her, but Adrian held me back, telling me to wait while he retrieved her."What is all this?" she asked when she reached me."I figured youd know," I told her. "Its all top secret royal stuff.""Too top secret for me," she said. "I got my invite from the queen. She told me it was part of myheritage and to keep it to myself, and then Adrian came and said I had to come for your sake.""Tatiana invited you directly?" I exclaimed. Maybe I shouldnt have been surprised. Lissa wouldhave hardly needed sneaking in like I did. I figured someone would have made sure she got aninvitation, but Id assumed it had all been Adrians doing. I glanced around uneasily. "Is Tatianahere?""Likely," said Adrian, voice annoyingly casual. As usual, his aunts presence didnt have thesame impact on him that it did the rest of us. "Oh, hey. Theres Christian. With the fire mask."I didnt know how Adrian spotted Christian, aside from the not-so-subtle mask metaphor. Withhis height and dark hair, Christian easily blended in with the other Moroi around him and hadeven been chatting with a girl standing nearby, which seemed out of character. "No way did he
  • get a legit invite," I said. If any Ozeras had been deemed special enough to come to this,Christian wouldnt have been one of them."He didnt," agreed Adrian, making a small gesture for Christian to join us. "I gave him one ofthe passwords I stole from Mom."I gave Adrian a startled look. "How many did you steal?""Enough to--""Let us come to attention."A mans booming voice rang out through the room, halting both Adrians words and Christianssteps. With a grimace, Christian returned to where hed been standing, cut off from us now on theother side of the room. It looked like I wouldnt have the chance to ask Lissa about Dimitri afterall.Without any direction, the others in the room began forming a circle around the fire pit. Theroom wasnt big enough for us to make a single-layered circle, so I was still able to stay behindother Moroi as I watched the spectacle. Lissa stood by me, but her attention was fixated acrossfrom us, on Christian. She was disappointed that he hadnt been able to join us."Tonight we come to honor the spirits of those who died fighting the great evil that has plaguedus for so long." This was the same man who had called us to attention. The black mask he woreglittered with silver swirls. He wasnt anyone special that I recognized. It was probably safe toassume that he was someone from an important bloodline who happened to have a good voicefor bringing people together. Adrian confirmed it."Thats Anthony Badica. They always recruit him as an emcee."
  • Anthony seemed more like a religious leader than an emcee right now, but I didnt want toanswer back and attract anyones notice."Tonight we honor them," continued Anthony.I flinched as almost everyone around us repeated those words. Lissa and I exchanged startledlooks. Apparently, there was a script we hadnt been told about."Their lives were taken from us too soon," continued Anthony."Tonight we honor them."Okay, this script might not be so hard to follow after all. Anthony kept talking about how terriblethe tragedy was, and we repeated the same response. The whole idea of this Death Watch stillweirded me out, but Lissas sadness permeated the bond and began to affect me too. Priscilla hadalways been good to her--and polite to me. Grant might have only been Lissas guardian a shorttime, but he had protected her and helped her. In fact, if not for Grants work with Lissa, Dimitrimight still be a Strigoi. So, slowly, the gravity of it all began to hit me, and even if I thoughtthere were better ways to mourn, I appreciated the acknowledgment the dead were getting.After a few more refrains, Anthony gestured someone forward. A woman in a glittering emeraldmask came forward with a torch. Adrian shifted beside me. "My darling mother," he murmured.Sure enough. Now that hed pointed it out, I could clearly make out Daniellas features. Shetossed her torch into the fire pit, and it lit up like the Fourth of July. Someone must have dousedthat wood with either gasoline or Russian vodka. Maybe both. No wonder the other guests hadkept their distance. Daniella melted into the crowd, and another woman came forward holding atray with golden goblets. Walking around the circle, she handed a cup to each person. When sheran out, another woman appeared with a tray.
  • As the goblets were distributed, Anthony explained, "Now we will toast and drink to the dead, sothat their spirits will move on and find peace."I shifted uncomfortably. People talked about restless spirits and the dead finding peace withoutreally knowing what that meant. Being shadow-kissed came with the ability to see the restlessdead, and it had taken me a long time to gain control so that I didnt see them. They were alwaysaround me; I had to work to keep them blocked out. I wondered what Id see now if I let downmy walls. Would the ghosts of those killed the night of Dimitris attack be hovering around us?Adrian sniffed his cup as soon as he got it and scowled. For a moment, I felt panic until I sniffedmine too. "Wine. Thank God," I whispered to him. "From your face, I thought it was blood." Irecalled how much he hated blood that wasnt straight from the source."Nah," he murmured back. "Just a bad vintage."When everyone had their wine, Anthony raised his cup over his head with both hands. With thefire behind him, it gave him an almost sinister, otherworldly look. "We drink to Priscilla Voda,"he said."We drink to Priscilla Voda," everyone repeated.He brought the goblet down and took a sip. So did everyone else--well, except for Adrian. Hegulped half his down, bad vintage or not. Anthony raised his cup over his head again."We drink to James Wilket."As I repeated the words, I realized James Wilket was one of Priscillas guardians. This crazygroup of royals really was showing respect to dhampirs. We went through the other guardiansone by one, but I kept my sips small, wanting to keep a level head tonight. I was pretty sure thatby the end of the name list, Adrian was faking his sips because hed run out.
  • When Anthony finished naming all who had died, he held his cup up again and approached theblazing fire, which had begun to make the small room uncomfortably hot. The back of my dresswas growing damp with sweat."To all those lost by the great evil, we honor your spirits and hope they will move on in peace tothe next world." He then dumped the remainder of his wine into the flames.All this talk of spirits lingering in the world certainly didnt go along with the usual Christianafterlife beliefs that dominated Moroi religion. It made me wonder just how old this ceremonyreally was. Once more, I had an urge to drop my barriers and see if any of this had really drawnghosts to us, but I feared what Id find. Besides, I promptly got distracted when everyone else inthe circle began dumping their wine into the fire as well. One by one, going clockwise, eachperson approached. All was silent as this happened, save for the crackling in the fire pit andshifting of logs. Everyone watched respectfully.When my turn came, I fought hard not to tremble. I hadnt forgotten that Adrian had sneaked mein here. Lowly Moroi werent allowed, let alone dhampirs. What would they do? Declare thespace violated? Mob me? Cast me into the fire?My fears proved unfounded. No one said or did anything unusual as I poured out my wine, and amoment later, Adrian stepped forward for his turn. I melted back beside Lissa. When the entirecircle had gone up, we were led into a moment of silence for the departed. Having witnessedLissas kidnapping and subsequent rescue, I had a lot of dead to ponder. No amount of silencewould ever do them justice.Another unspoken signal seemed to pass through the room. The circle dispersed, and the tensionlifted. People again fell into small chatty groups, just like at any other party, though I did seetears on the faces of some."A lot of people must have liked Priscilla," I observed.
  • Adrian turned toward a table that had mysteriously been arranged during the ceremony. It satagainst the back wall and was filled with fruit, cheese, and more wine. Naturally, he poured aglass."They arent all crying for her," he said."I find it hard to believe theyre crying for the dhampirs," I pointed out. "No one here even knewthem.""Not true," he said.Lissa quickly caught his meaning. "Most of the people who went on the rescue would have beenguardians assigned to Moroi. They couldnt all be Court guardians."She was right, I realized. Wed had too many people with us at the warehouse. Many of theseMoroi had undoubtedly lost guardians that theyd become close to. Despite the disdain I oftenhad for these types of royals, I knew some had probably formed legitimate friendships with andattachments to their bodyguards."This is a lame party," a voice suddenly said. We turned and saw that Christian had finally madehis way over to us. "I couldnt tell if we were supposed to be having a funeral or summoning thedevil. It was kind of a half-assed attempt at both.""Stop it," I said, surprising myself. "Those people died for you last night. Whatever this is, itsstill out of respect for them."Christians face grew sober. "Youre right."
  • Beside me, Id felt Lissa light up inside when she saw him. The horrors of their ordeal hadbrought them closer together, and I recalled the tenderness theyd shared on the ride back. Sheoffered him a warm look and got a tentative smile in return. Maybe some good would come ofall that had happened. Maybe theyd be able to fix their problems.Or maybe not.Adrian broke into a grin. "Hey. Glad you could make it."For a moment, I thought he was speaking to Christian. Then I looked and saw a girl in a peacockmask had joined us. With the mingling people and masks, I hadnt noticed that she was purposelystanding near us. I peered at her, seeing only blue eyes and golden curls before I finallyrecognized her. Mia."What are you doing here?" I asked.She grinned. "Adrian got me a password.""Adrian apparently got passwords for half the party."He seemed very pleased with himself. "See?" he said, smiling at me. "I told you Id make thisworth your while. The whole gangs here. Nearly.""This is one of the weirdest things Ive ever seen," said Mia, glancing around. "I dont see why ithas to be a secret that the people who got killed were heroes. Why cant they wait for the groupfuneral?"
  • Adrian shrugged. "I told you, this is an ancient ceremony. Its a holdover from the Old Country,and these people think its important. From what I know, it used to be a lot more elaborate. Thisis the modernized version."It occurred to me then that Lissa hadnt said a single word since wed noticed Christian had comewith Mia. I opened myself to the bond, feeling a flood of jealousy and resentment. I stillmaintained Mia was one of the last people Christian would be involved with. (Okay, it was hardfor me to imagine him involved with anyone. His getting together with Lissa had beenmonumental.) Lissa couldnt see that, though. All she saw was him continually hanging out withother girls. As our conversation continued, Lissas attitude grew frostier, and the friendly lookshed been giving her began to fade."So is it true?" Mia asked, oblivious to the drama unfolding around her. "Is Dimitri really...back?"Lissa and I exchanged glances. "Yes," I said firmly. "Hes a dhampir, but no one believes it yet.Because theyre idiots.""It just happened, little dhampir." Adrians tone was gentle, though the topic clearly made himuncomfortable too. "You cant expect everyone to get on board with it right away.""But they are idiots," said Lissa fiercely. "Anyone who talks to him can tell hes not a Strigoi. Impushing for them to let him out of his cell so that people can actually see for themselves."I wished she would push a little harder for me to get to see him, but now wasnt the time to talkabout that. Eyeing the room, I wondered if some people would have trouble accepting Dimitribecause of his role in the deaths of their loved ones. He hadnt been in control of himself, but thatwasnt enough to bring back the dead.Still uncomfortable around Christian, Lissa was growing restless. She also wanted to leave andcheck on Dimitri. "How long do we have to stay here? Is there more to--"
  • "Who the hell are you?"Our little cluster turned as one and found Anthony standing by us. Considering most of us werehere illicitly, he could have been speaking to anyone. But, based on where his gaze was fixed,there was no question who he meant.He was talking to me. Chapter Twenty"YOURE NOT MOROI!" HE CONTINUED. He wasnt shouting, but wed definitely gotten theattention of the people standing near us. "Youre Rose Hathaway, arent you? How dare you andyour impure blood invade the sanctity of our--""Thats enough," a lofty voice suddenly said. "Ill take it from here."Even with her face covered, there was no mistaking that voice. Tatiana swept in beside the guy,wearing a silver flowered mask and a long-sleeved gray dress. Id probably seen her earlier in thecrowd and not even realized it. Until she spoke, she blended in with everyone else.The whole room was quiet now. Daniella Ivashkov scurried up behind Tatiana, her eyeswidening behind her mask when she recognized me. "Adrian--" she began.But Tatiana was seizing the situation. "Come with me."There was no question that the order was for me or that I would obey. She turned and walkedswiftly toward the rooms entrance. I hurried behind her, as did Adrian and Daniella.
  • As soon as we were out in the torch-lit hall, Daniella turned on Adrian. "What were youthinking? You know I dont mind you bringing Rose to certain events, but this was--""Inappropriate," said Tatiana crisply. "Although, perhaps it is fitting that a dhampir see howmuch the sacrifices of her people are respected."That shocked us all into a moment of silence. Daniella recovered herself first. "Yes, but traditionstates that--"Tatiana interrupted her again. "Im well aware of the tradition. Its a bad breach of etiquette, butRosemarie being here certainly doesnt ruin our intentions. Losing Priscilla..." Tatiana didntchoke up, exactly, but she lost some of her normal composure. I didnt think of someone like heras having a best friend, but Priscilla pretty much had been. How would I act if Id lost Lissa? Notnearly so controlled."Losing Priscilla is something Ill feel for a very, very long time," Tatiana managed at last. Hersharp eyes were on me. "And I hope you really do understand how much we need and value youand all the other guardians. I know sometimes your race feels underappreciated. You arent.Those who died have left a gaping hole in our ranks, one that leaves us even more undefended,as Im sure you must know."I nodded, still surprised Tatiana wasnt shrieking for me to get out. "Its a big loss," I said. "And itmakes the situation worse because numbers are what harm us half the time--especially when theStrigoi form large groups. We cant always match that."Tatiana nodded, seeming pleasantly surprised wed agreed on something. That made two of us. "Iknew youd understand. Nonetheless..." She turned toward Adrian. "You shouldnt have donethis. Some lines of propriety need to be maintained."Adrian was surprisingly meek. "Sorry, Aunt Tatiana. I just thought it was something Rose shouldsee."
  • "Youll keep this to yourself, wont you?" asked Daniella, turning back to me. "A lot of the guestsare very, very conservative. They wouldnt want this getting out."That they met by firelight and played dress-up? Yeah, I could see them wanting that kept asecret."I wont tell anyone," I assured them."Good," said Tatiana. "Now, you should still probably leave before--is that Christian Ozera?"Her eyes had drifted back toward the crowded room."Yes," both Adrian and I said."He didnt get an invitation," exclaimed Daniella. "Is that your fault too?""Its not my fault so much as my genius," said Adrian."I doubt anyone will know, so long as he behaves himself," said Tatiana with a sigh. "And Imsure hed take any opportunity he can to talk to Vasilisa.""Oh," I said, without thinking. "Thats not Lissa." Lissa had actually turned her back towardChristian and was speaking to someone else while casting anxious looks out the door at me."Who is it?" asked Tatiana.
  • Crap. "Thats, um, Mia Rinaldi. Shes a friend of ours from St. Vladimirs." Id almost consideredlying and giving her a royal name. Some families were so big that it was impossible to keep trackof everyone."Rinaldi." Tatiana frowned. "I think I know a servant with that name." I was actually prettyimpressed that she knew the people who worked for her. Yet again, my opinion of her shifted."A servant?" asked Daniella, giving her son a warning look. "Is there anyone else I should knowabout?""No. If Id had more time, I probably could have got Eddie here. Hell, maybe even Jailbait."Daniella looked scandalized. "Did you just say Jailbait?""Its just a joke," I said hastily, not wanting to make this situation worse. I was afraid of howAdrian might answer. "Its what we sometimes call our friend Jill Mastrano."Neither Tatiana nor Daniella seemed to think that was a joke at all."Well, no one seems to realize they dont belong," said Daniella, nodding toward Christian andMia. "Though the gossips here will no doubt be running wild with how Rose interrupted thisevent.""Sorry," I said, feeling bad that I might have gotten her in trouble."Nothing to be done for it now," said Tatiana wearily. "You should leave now so that everyonethinks you were severely chastised. Adrian, you come back with us and make sure your otherguests dont raise any attention. And do not do something like this again."
  • "I wont," he said, almost convincingly.The three began to turn away, leaving me to skulk off, but Tatiana paused and glanced back."Wrong or not, dont forget what you saw here. We really do need guardians."I nodded, a flush of pride running through me at her acknowledgment. Then she and the othersreturned to the room. I watched them wistfully, hating that everyone in there thought Id beenkicked out in disgrace. Considering it could have gone a lot worse for me, I decided to count myblessings. I removed the mask, having nothing more to hide, and made the trek back upstairs andoutdoors.I hadnt gotten very far when someone stepped out in front of me. It was a sign of mypreoccupation that I nearly leapt ten feet in the air."Mikhail," I exclaimed. "You scared me half to death. What are you doing out here?""Actually, Ive been looking for you." There was an anxious, nervous look about him. "I went byyour building earlier, but you werent around.""Yeah, I was at the Masquerade of the Damned."He stared at me blankly."Never mind. Whats up?""I think we might have a chance."
  • "Chance for what?""I heard you tried to see Dimitri today."Ah, yes. The topic I definitely wanted to think more about. "Yeah. Try is pretty optimistic. Hedoesnt want to see me, never mind the army of guardians blocking me out."Mikhail shifted uncomfortably, peering around like a frightened animal. "Thats why I came tofind you.""Okay, Im really not following any of this." I was also starting to get a headache from the wine.Mikhail took a deep breath and exhaled. "I think I can sneak you in to see him."I waited for a moment, wondering if there was a punch line coming or if maybe this was all somedelusion born out of my wound-up emotions. Nope. Mikhails face was deadly serious, and whileI still didnt know him that well, Id picked up enough to realize he didnt really joke around."How?" I asked. "I tried and--"Mikhail beckoned for me to follow. "Come on, and Ill explain. We dont have much time."I wasnt about to waste this chance and hurried after him. "Has something happened?" I asked,once Id caught up to his longer stride. "Did... did he ask for me?" It was more than I dared tohope for. Mikhails use of the word sneak didnt really support that idea anyway."Theyve lightened his guard," Mikhail explained.
  • "Really?How many?" There had been about a dozen down there when Lissa visited, includingher escort. If theyd come to their senses and realized they only needed a guy or two on Dimitri,then that boded well for everyone accepting that he was no longer Strigoi."Hes down to about five.""Oh." Not great. Not horrible. "But I guess even that means theyre a little closer to believing hessafe now?"Mikhail shrugged, keeping his eyes on the path ahead of us. It had rained during the DeathWatch, and the air, while still humid, had cooled a little. "Some of the guardians do. But itll takea royal decree from the Council to officially declare what he is."I almost came to a halt. "Declare what he is?" I exclaimed. "Hes not a what! Hes a person. Adhampir like us.""I know, but its out of our hands.""Youre right. Sorry," I grumbled. No point in shooting the messenger. "Well, I hope they get offtheir asses and come to a decision soon."The silence that followed spoke legions. I gave Mikhail a sharp glare."What? What arent you telling me?" I demanded.He shrugged. "The rumor is that theres some other big thing being debated in the Council rightnow, something that takes priority."
  • That enraged me too. What in the world could take priority over Dimitri? Calm, Rose. Stay calm.Focus. Dont let the darkness make this worse. I always fought to keep it buried, but it oftenexploded in times of stress. And this? Yeah, this was a pretty stressful time. I shifted back to theoriginal topic.We reached the holding building, and I took the steps up two at a time. "Even if theyve lightenedthe guardians on Dimitri, they still wont let me in. The ones that are there would know I wasordered to keep away.""A friend of mines covering the front shift right now. We wont have long, but hell tell theguardians in the holding area that you were authorized to come down."Mikhail was about to open the door, and I stopped him, putting my hand on his arm. "Why areyou doing this for me? The Moroi Council might not think Dimitris a big deal, but the guardiansdo. You could get in big trouble."He looked down at me, again with that small, bitter smile. "Do you have to ask?"I thought about it. "No," I said softly."When I lost Sonya..." Mikhail closed his eyes for a heartbeat, and when he opened them, theyseemed to be staring off into the past. "When I lost her, I didnt want to go on living. She was agood person--really. She turned Strigoi out of desperation. She saw no other way to save herselffrom spirit. I would give anything--anything--for a chance to help her, to fix things between us. Idont know if thatll ever be possible for us, but it is possible for you right now. I cant let youlose this."With that, he let us in, and sure enough, there was a different guardian on duty. Just as Mikhailhad said, the guy called down to tell the jail guardians Dimitri had a visitor. Mikhails friendseemed incredibly nervous about it all, which was understandable. Still, he was willing to help. It
  • was amazing, I thought, what friends would do for each other. These last couple of weeks wereundeniable proof of that.Just like at Lissas visit, two guardians showed up to escort me downstairs. I recognized themfrom when Id been in her head, and they seemed surprised to see me. If theyd overheard Dimitriadamantly saying he didnt want me to visit, then my presence would indeed be shocking. But asfar as they knew, someone in power had condoned me being here, so they asked no questions.Mikhail trailed us as we wound our way down, and I felt my heartbeat and breathing grow rapid.Dimitri. I was about to see Dimitri. What would I say? What would I do? It was almost too muchto comprehend. I had to keep mentally slapping myself to focus, or else I was going to slide intodumbstruck shock.When we reached the hallway that held the cells, I saw two guardians standing in front ofDimitris cell, one at the far end, and two others by the entrance wed come through. I stopped,uneasy about the thought of others overhearing me talk to Dimitri. I didnt want an audience likeLissa had had, but with the emphasis on security here, I might not have a choice."Can I get a little privacy?" I asked.One of my escorts shook his head. "Official orders. Two guardians have to be posted at the cellat all times.""Shes a guardian," pointed out Mikhail mildly. "So am I. Let us go. The rest can wait by thedoor."I flashed Mikhail a grateful look. I could handle having him nearby. The others, deciding wewould be safe enough, moved discreetly to the ends of the hall. It wasnt total and completeprivacy, but they wouldnt hear everything.
  • My heart felt ready to burst from my chest as Mikhail and I walked over to Dimitris cell andfaced it. He was seated almost as he had been when Lissa arrived: on the bed, curled up intohimself, back facing us.Words stuck in my throat. Coherent thought fled from my mind. It was like Id totally forgottenthe reason Id come here."Dimitri," I said. At least, thats what I tried to say. I choked up a little, so the sounds that cameout of my mouth were garbled. It was apparently enough, though, because Dimitris backsuddenly went rigid. He didnt turn around."Dimitri," I repeated, more clearly this time. "Its... me."There was no need for me to say any more. Hed known from that first attempt at his name who Iwas. I had a feeling he would have known my voice in any situation. He probably knew thesound of my heartbeat and breathing. As it was, I think I stopped breathing while I waited for hisresponse. When it came, it was a little disappointing."No.""No what?" I asked. "As in, no, its not me?"He exhaled in frustration, a sound almost--but not quite--like the one he used to make when I didsomething particularly ridiculous in our trainings. "No, as in I dont want to see you." His voicewas thick with emotion. "They werent supposed to let you in.""Yeah. Well, I kind of found a work-around.""Of course you did."
  • He still wouldnt face me, which was agonizing. I glanced over at Mikhail, who gave me a nod ofencouragement. I guessed I should be glad that Dimitri was talking to me at all."I had to see you. I had to know if you were okay.""Im sure Lissas already updated you.""I had to see for myself.""Well, now you see.""All I see is your back."It was maddening, yet every word I got out of him was a gift. It felt like a thousand years sinceId heard his voice. Like before, I wondered how I could have ever confused the Dimitri inSiberia with this one. His voice had been identical in both places, the same pitch and accent, yetas a Strigoi, his words had always left a chill in the air. This was warm. Honey and velvet and allsorts of wonderful things wrapping around me, no matter the terrible things he was saying."I dont want you here," said Dimitri flatly. "I dont want to see you."I took a moment to assess strategy. Dimitri still had that depressed, hopeless feel around him.Lissa had approached it with kindness and compassion. Shed gotten through his defenses,though a lot of that was because he regarded her as his savior. I could try a similar tactic. I couldbe gentle and supportive and full of love--all of which were true. I loved him. I wanted to helphim so badly. Yet I wasnt sure that particular method would work for me. Rose Hathaway wasnot always known for the soft approach. I did, however, play on his sense of obligation.
  • "You cant ignore me," I said, trying to keep my volume out of range of the other guardians."You owe me. I saved you."A few moments of silence passed. "Lissa saved me," he said carefully.Anger burned within my chest, just it had when Id watched Lissa visit him. How could he holdher in such high regard but not me?"How do you think she got to that point?" I demanded. "How do you think she learned how tosave you? Do you have any idea what we--what I--had to go through to get that information?You think me going to Siberia was crazy? Believe me, you havent even come close to seeingcrazy. You know me. You know what Im capable of. And I broke my own records this time.You. Owe. Me."It was harsh, but I needed a reaction from him. Some kind of emotion. And I got it. He jerkedaround, eyes glinting and power crackling through his body. As always, his movements wereboth fierce and graceful. Likewise, his voice was a mix of emotions: anger, frustration, andconcern."Then the best thing I can do is--"He froze. The brown eyes that had been narrowed with aggravation suddenly went wide with...what? Amazement?Awe? Or perhaps that stunned feeling I kept having when I saw him?Because suddenly, I was pretty sure he was experiencing the same thing I had earlier. Hed seenme plenty of times in Siberia. Hed seen me just the other night at the warehouse. But now... nowhe was truly viewing me with his own eyes. Now that he was no longer Strigoi, his whole worldwas different. His outlook and feelings were different. Even his soul was different.
  • It was like one of those moments when people talked about their lives flashing before their eyes.Because as we stared at one another, every part of our relationship replayed in my minds eye. Iremembered how strong and invincible hed been when we first met, when hed come to bringLissa and me back to the folds of Moroi society. I remembered the gentleness of his touch whenhed bandaged my bloodied and battered hands. I remembered him carrying me in his arms afterVictors daughter Natalie had attacked me. Most of all, I remembered the night wed beentogether in the cabin, just before the Strigoi had taken him. A year. Wed known each other onlya year, but wed lived a lifetime in it.And he was realizing that too, I knew, as he studied me. His gaze was all-powerful, taking inevery single one of my features and filing them away. Dimly, I tried to recall what I looked liketoday. I still wore the dress from the secret meeting and knew it looked good on me. My eyeswere probably bloodshot from crying earlier, and Id only had time for a quick brushing of myhair before heading off with Adrian.Somehow, I doubted any of it mattered. The way Dimitri was looking at me... it confirmedeverything Id suspected. The feelings hed had for me before hed been turned--the feelings thathad become twisted while a Strigoi--were all still there. They had to be. Maybe Lissa was hissavior. Maybe the rest of the Court thought she was a goddess. I knew, right then, that no matterhow bedraggled I looked or how blank he tried to keep his face, I was a goddess to him.He swallowed and forcibly gained control of himself, just like he always had. Some things neverchanged. "Then the best thing I can do," he continued calmly, "is to stay away from you. Thatsthe best way to repay the debt."It was hard for me to keep control and maintain some sort of logical conversation. I was asawestruck as he was. I was also outraged. "You offered to repay Lissa by staying by her sideforever!""I didnt do the things..." He averted his eyes for a moment, again struggling for control, and thenmet mine once more. "I didnt do the things to her that I did to you.""You werent you! I dont care." My temper was starting to burn again
  • "How many?" he exclaimed. "How many guardians died last night because of what I did?""I... I think six or seven." Harsh losses. I felt a small pang in my chest, recalling the names readoff in that basement room."Six or seven," Dimitri repeated flatly, anguish in his voice. "Dead in one night.Because of me.""You didnt act alone! And I told you, you werent you. You couldnt control yourself. It doesntmatter to me--""It matters to me!" he shouted, his voice ringing through the hallway. The guardians at each endshifted but didnt approach. When Dimitri spoke again, he kept his voice lower, but it was stilltrembling with wild emotions. "It matters to me. Thats what you dont get. You cant understand.You cant understand what its like knowing what I did. That whole time being Strigoi... its like adream now, but its one I remember clearly. There can be no forgiveness for me. And whathappened with you? I remember that most of all. Everything I did. Everything I wanted to do.""Youre not going to do it now," I pleaded. "So let it go. Before--before everything happened,you said we could be together. That wed get assignments near each other and--""Roza," he interrupted, the nickname piercing my heart. I think hed slipped up, not trulymeaning to call me that. There was a twisted smile on his lips, one without humor. "Do youreally think theyre going to ever let me be a guardian again? Itll be a miracle if they let melive!""Thats not true. Once they realize youve changed and that youre really your old self...everythingll go back to how it was."
  • He shook his head sadly. "Your optimism... your belief that you can make anything happen. Oh,Rose. Its one of the amazing things about you. Its also one of the most infuriating things aboutyou.""I believed that you could come back from being a Strigoi," I pointed out. "Maybe my belief inthe impossible isnt so crazy after all."This conversation was so grave, so heartbreaking, yet it still kept reminding me of some of ourold practice sessions. Hed try to convince me of some serious point, and Id counter it with Rose-logic. It would usually earn me a mix of amusement and exasperation. I had the feeling that werethe situation just a little different, hed have that same attitude now. But this was not a practicesession. He wouldnt smile and roll his eyes. This was serious. This was life and death."Im grateful for what you did," he said formally, still struggling to master his feelings. It wasanother trait we shared, both of us always working to stay in control. Hed always been better atit than me. "I do owe you. And its a debt I cant pay. Like I said, the best thing I can do is stayout of your life.""If youre part of Lissas, then you cant avoid me.""People can exist around each other without... without there being any more than that," he saidfirmly. It was such a Dimitri thing to say. Logic fighting emotion.And thats when I lost it. Like I said, he was always better at keeping control. Me? Not so much.I threw myself against the bars, so rapidly that even Mikhail flinched. "But I love you!" I hissed."And I know you love me too. Do you really think you can spend the rest of your life ignoringthat when youre around me?"
  • The troubling part was that for a very long time at the Academy, Dimitri had been convinced hecould do exactly that. And he had been prepared to spend his life not acting on his feelings forme."You love me," I repeated. "I know you do." I stretched my arm through the bars. It was a longway from touching him, but my fingers reached out desperately, as though they might suddenlygrow and be able to make contact. That was all I needed. One touch from him to know he stillcared, one touch to feel the warmth of his skin and--"Isnt it true," said Dimitri quietly, "that youre involved with Adrian Ivashkov?"My arm dropped."Wh--where did you hear that?""Things get around," he said, echoing Mikhail."They certainly do," I muttered."So are you?" he asked more adamantly.I hesitated before answering. If I told him the truth, hed have more ground to make his pointabout us keeping apart. It was impossible for me to lie to him, though."Yes, but--"
  • "Good." Im not sure how I expected him to react. Jealousy?Shock? Instead, as he leaned backagainst the wall, he looked... relieved. "Adrians a better person than he gets credit for. Hell begood to you.""But--""Thats where your future is, Rose." A bit of that hopeless, world-weary attitude was returning."You dont understand what its like coming through what I did--coming back from being aStrigoi. Its changed everything. Its not just that what I did to you is unforgiveable. All myfeelings... my emotions for you... they changed. I dont feel the way I used to. I might be adhampir again, but after what I went through... well, its scarred me. It altered my soul. I cantlove anyone now. I cant--I dont--love you. Theres nothing more between you and me."My blood turned cold. I refused to believe his words, not after the way hed looked at me earlier."No! Thats not true! I love you and you--""Guards!" Dimitri shouted, his voice so loud that it was a wonder the whole building didntshake. "Get her out of here. Get her out of here!"With amazing guardian reflexes, the guards were down at the cell in a flash. As a prisoner,Dimitri wasnt in a position to make requests, but the authorities here certainly werent going toencourage a situation that would create a commotion. They began herding Mikhail and me out,but I resisted."No, wait--""Dont fight it," murmured Mikhail in my ear. "Our times running out, and you couldnt haveaccomplished anything else today anyway."
  • I wanted to protest, but the words stuck on my lips. I let the guardians direct me out, but notbefore I gave Dimitri one last, lingering look. He had a perfect, guardian-blank look on his face,but the piercing way he stared at me made me certain there was a lot going on within him.Mikhails friend was still on duty upstairs, which let us slip out without getting in--much--moretrouble. As soon as we were outdoors, I came to a halt and kicked one of the steps angrily."Damn it!" I yelled. A couple of Moroi across the courtyard--probably coming home from somelate party--gave me startled looks."Calm down," said Mikhail. "This was the first time youve seen him since the change. There areonly so many miracles you can expect right away. Hell come around.""Im not so sure," I grumbled. Sighing, I looked up at the sky. Little wispy clouds moved lazilyabout, but I barely saw them. "You dont know him like I do."Because while part of me thought that a lot of what Dimitri had said was indeed a reaction to theshock of returning to himself, there was another part of me that wondered. I knew Dimitri. Iknew his sense of honor, his adamant beliefs about what was right and wrong. He stood by thosebeliefs. He lived his life by them. If he truly, truly believed that the right thing to do was to avoidme and let any relationship between us fade, well... there was a good chance he might very wellact on that idea, no matter the love between us. As Id recalled earlier, hed certainly shown a lotof resistance back at St. Vladimirs.As for the rest... the part about him no longer loving me or being able to love anyone... well, thatwould be a different problem all together if it were true. Both Christian and Adrian had worriedthere would be some piece of Strigoi left in him, but their fears had been about violence andbloodshed. No one would have guessed this: that living as a Strigoi had hardened his heart,killing any chance of him loving anyone.Killing any chance of him loving me.
  • And I was pretty sure that if that was the case, then part of me would die too. Chapter Twenty-oneTHERE WAS LITTLE MORE MIKHAIL and I could say to each other after that. I didnt wanthim to get in trouble for what hed done, and I let him lead us out of the guardians building insilence. As we emerged outside, I could see the sky purpling in the east. The sun was nearly up,signaling the middle of our night. Briefly flipping into Lissas mind, I read that the Death Watchhad finally ended, and she was on her way back to her room--worried about me and still annoyedthat Christian had shown up with Mia.I followed Lissas example, wondering if sleep might ease the agony that Dimitri had left in myheart. Probably not. Still, I thanked Mikhail for his help and the risk hed taken. He merelynodded, like there was nothing to thank him for. It was exactly what he would have wanted me todo for him if our roles had been reversed and Ms. Karp had been the one behind bars.I feel into a heavy sleep back in my bed, but my dreams were troubled. Over and over, I kepthearing Dimitri tell me he couldnt love me anymore. It beat into me over and over, smashing myheart into little pieces. At one point, it became more than a dreamlike beating. I heard realbeating. Someone was pounding on my door, and slowly, I dragged myself out of my awfuldreams.Bleary-eyed, I went to the door and found Adrian. The scene was almost a mirror of last nightwhen hed come to invite me to the Death Watch. Only this time, his face was much grimmer.For a second, I thought hed heard about my visit to Dimitri. Or that maybe hed gotten in a lotmore trouble than wed realized for sneaking half of his friends into a secret funeral."Adrian... this is early for you...." I glanced over at a clock, discovering that Id actually slept inpretty late."Not early at all," he confirmed, face still serious. "Lots of stuff going on. I had to come tell youthe news before you heard it somewhere else."
  • "What news?""The Councils verdict. They finally passed that big resolution theyve been debating. The oneyou came in for.""Wait. Theyre done?" I recalled what Mikhail had said, that a mystery issue had been keepingthe Council busy. If it was finished, then they could move on to something else--say, like,officially declaring Dimitri a dhampir again. "Thats great news." And if this really was tied intowhen Tatiana had had me come describe my skills... well, was there really a chance I might benamed Lissas guardian? Could the queen have really come through? Shed seemed friendlyenough last night.Adrian regarded me with something Id never seen from him: pity. "You have no idea, do you?""No idea about what?""Rose..." He gently rested a hand on my shoulder. "The Council just passed a decree loweringthe guardian age to sixteen. Dhampirsll graduate when theyre sophomores and then go out forassignments.""What?" Surely Id misheard."You know how panicked theyve been about protection and not having enough guardians,right?" He sighed. "This was their solution to increasing your numbers.""But theyre too young!" I cried. "How can anyone think sixteen-year-olds are ready to go outand fight?"
  • "Well," said Adrian, "because you testified that they were."My mouth dropped, everything freezing around me. You testified that they were... No. It couldntbe possible.Adrian gently nudged my arm, trying to shake me out of my stupor. "Come on, theyre stillwrapping up. They made the announcement in an open session, and some people are... a littleupset.""Yeah, Ill say." He didnt need to tell me twice. I immediately started to follow, then realized Iwas in my pajamas. I quickly changed and brushed my hair, still scarcely able to believe whathed just said. My preparation only took five minutes, and then we were out the door. Adrianwasnt overly athletic, but he kept a pretty good pace as we headed toward the Councils hall."How did this happen?" I asked. "You dont really mean that... that what I said played a role?" Idmeant my words to be a demand, but they came out with more of a pleading note.He lit a cigarette without breaking stride, and I didnt bother chastising him for it. "Its apparentlybeen a hot topic for a while. It was a pretty close vote. The people pushing for it knew theydneed to show a lot of evidence to win. You were their grand prize: a teen dhampir slaying Strigoileft and right, long before graduation.""Not that long," I muttered, my fury kindling. Sixteen? Were they serious? It was ludicrous. Thefact that I had been unknowingly used to support this decree made me sick to my stomach. Idbeen a fool, thinking theyd all ignored my rule breaking and had simply paraded me in to praiseme. Theyd used me. Tatiana had used me.When we reached it, the Council hall was in as much chaos as Adrian had implied. True, I hadntspent a lot of time in these kinds of meetings, but I was pretty sure that people standing up inclusters and yelling at each other wasnt normal. The Councils herald probably didnt usuallyscream himself hoarse trying to bring order to the crowd either.
  • The only spot of calm was Tatiana herself, sitting patiently in her seat at the center of the table,just as Council etiquette dictated. She looked very pleased with herself. The rest of hercolleagues had lost all sense of propriety and were on their feet like the audience, arguingamongst themselves or anyone else ready to pick a fight. I stared in amazement, unsure what todo in all this disorder."Who voted for what?" I asked.Adrian studied the Council members and ticked them off on his fingers. "Szelsky, Ozera, Badica,Dashkov, Conta, and Drozdov. They were against it.""Ozera?" I asked in surprise. I didnt know the Ozera princess--Evette--very well, but shedalways seemed pretty stiff and unpleasant. I had new respect for her now.Adrian nodded over to where Tasha was furiously addressing a large group of people, eyesflashing and arms waving wildly. "Evette was persuaded by some of her family members."That made me smile too, but only for a moment. It was good that Tasha and Christian were beingacknowledged amongst their clan again, but the rest of our problem was still alive and kicking. Icould deduce the rest of the names."So... Prince Ivashkov voted for it," I said. Adrian shrugged by way of apology for his family."Lazar, Zeklos, Tarus, and Voda." That the Voda family would vote for extra protection wasntentirely a surprise, considering the recent slaughter of one of their members. Priscilla wasnt evenin her grave yet, and the new Voda prince, Alexander, seemed clearly unsure what to do with hissudden promotion.I gave Adrian a sharp look. "Thats only five to six. Oh." Realization dawned. "Shit. Royaltiebreaker."
  • The Moroi voting system had been set up with twelve members, one for each family, and thenwhoever the reigning king or queen was. True, it often meant one group got two votes, since themonarch rarely voted against his or her own family. It had been known to happen. Regardless,the system should have had thirteen votes, preventing ties. Except... a recent problem haddeveloped. There were no Dragomirs on the Council anymore, meaning ties could occur. In thatrare event, Moroi law dictated that the monarchs vote carried extra weight. Id heard that hadalways been controversial, and yet at the same time, there wasnt much to be done for it. Ties inthe Council would mean nothing ever got settled, and since monarchs were elected, many took iton faith that they would act in the best interests of the Moroi."Tatianas was the sixth," I said. "And hers swayed it." Glancing around, I saw a bit of anger onthe faces of those from the families who had voted against the decree. Apparently, not everyonebelieved Tatiana had acted in the best interest of the Moroi.Lissas presence sang to me through the bond, so her arrival a few moments later was no surprise.News had spread fast, though she didnt yet know the fine details. Adrian and I waved her over.She was as dumbfounded as we were."How could they do that?" she asked."Because theyre too afraid that someone might make them learn to defend themselves. Tashasgroup was getting too loud."Lissa shook her head. "No, not just that. I mean, why were they even in session? We should be inmourning after what happened the other day--publicly. The whole Court, not just some secretpart of it. One of the Council members even died! Couldnt they wait for the funeral?" In herminds eye, I could see the images from that grisly night, where Priscilla had died right beforeLissas eyes.
  • "But was easily replaceable," a new voice said. Christian had joined us. Lissa took a few stepsaway from him, still annoyed about Mia. "And actually, its the perfect time. The people whowanted this had to jump at their chance. Every time theres a big Strigoi fight, everyone panics.Fearll make a lot of people get on board with this. And if any Council members were undecidedbefore this, that battle probably pushed them over."That was pretty wise reasoning for Christian, and Lissa was impressed, despite her troubledfeelings for him right now. The Councils herald finally managed to make his voice heard overthe shouts of the audience. I wondered if the group would have quieted down if Tatiana herselfhad started yelling at them to shut up. But no. That was probably beneath her dignity. She wasstill sitting there calmly, like nothing unusual was going on.Nonetheless, it took several moments for everyone to settle down and take their seats. My friendsand I hurriedly grabbed the first ones we could find. With peace and quiet achieved at last, theweary-looking herald yielded the floor to the queen.Smiling grandly at the assembly, she addressed them in her most imperious voice. "Wed like tothank everyone for coming today and expressing your... opinions. I know some are still unsureabout this decision, but Moroi law has been followed here--laws that have been in place forcenturies. We will have another session soon to listen to what you have to say in an orderlyfashion." Something told me that was an empty gesture. People could talk all they wanted; shewouldnt listen. "This decision--this verdict--will benefit the Moroi. Our guardians are already soexcellent." She gave a condescending nod toward the ceremonial guardians standing along therooms walls. They wore typically neutral faces, but I was guessing that, like me, they probablywanted to punch half the Council. "They are so excellent, in fact, that they train their students tobe ready to defend us at an early age. We will all be safer from tragedies like that which recentlyoccurred."She lowered her head a moment in what must have been a show of grieving. I recalled last nightwhen shed choked up over Priscilla. Had that been an act? Was her best friends death aconvenient way for Tatiana to push forward with her own agenda. Surely... surely, she wasntthat cold.
  • The queen lifted her head and continued. "And again, were happy to listen to you register youropinions, although by our own laws, this matter is settled. Further sessions will have to wait untilan adequate period of mourning has passed for the unfortunate departed."Her tone and body language implied that this was indeed the end of the discussion. Then, animpertinent voice suddenly broke the rooms silence.My voice."Well, Id kind of like to register my opinion now."Inside my head, Lissa was shouting: Sit down, sit down! But I was already on my feet, movingtoward the Councils table. I stopped at a respectful distance, one that would let them notice mebut not get me tackled by guardians. And oh, they noticed me. The herald flushed bright red atmy rule breaking."You are out of line and in violation of all Council protocol! Sit down right now before you areremoved." He glanced over at the guardians, like he expected them to come charging forwardright then. None of them moved. Either they didnt perceive me as a threat, or they werewondering what I was going to do. I was also wondering this.With a small, delicate hand gesture, Tatiana waved the herald back. "I daresay theres been somuch breach of protocol today that one more incident wont make a difference." She fixed mewith a kind smile, one that was apparently intended to make us look like friends. "Besides,Guardian Hathaway is one of our most valuable assets. Im always interested in what she has tosay."Was she really? Time to find out. I addressed my words to the Council.
  • "This thing youve just passed is utterly and totally insane." I considered it a great feat on my partthat I didnt use any swear words there because I had some adjectives in mind that were muchmore fitting. Who said I didnt understand Council etiquette? "How can any of you sit there andthink its okay to send sixteen-year-olds out to risk their lives?""Its only two years difference," said the Tarus prince. "Its not like were sending ten-year-olds.""Two years is a lot." I thought for a moment about when Id been sixteen. What had happened inthose two years? Id run off with Lissa, watched friends die, traveled around the world, fallen inlove.... "You can live a lifetime in two years. And if you want us to keep being on the front lines--which most of us willingly do when we graduate--then you owe us those two years."This time, I glanced back at the audience. The reactions were mixed. Some clearly agreed withme, nodding along. Some looked as though nothing in the world would change their minds aboutthe decree being just. Others wouldnt meet my eyes.... Had I swayed them? Were theyundecided? Embarrassed at their own selfishness? They might be the keys."Believe me, I would love to see your people enjoy their youth." This was Nathan Ivashkovspeaking. "But right now, thats not an option we have. The Strigoi are closing in. Were losingmore Moroi and guardians every day. Getting more fighters out there will stop this, and really,were just letting those dhampirs skills go to waste by waiting a couple years. This plan willprotect both our races.""Itll kill mine off faster!" I said. Realizing I might start shouting if I lost control, I took a deepbreath before going on. "They wont be ready. They wont have all the training they need."And that was where Tatiana herself made her master play. "Yet, by your own admission, youwere certainly prepared at a young age. You killed more Strigoi before you were eighteen thansome guardians kill their entire lives."
  • I fixed her with a narrow-eyed look. "I," I said coldly, "had an excellent instructor. One that youcurrently have locked up. If you want to talk about skills going to waste, then go look in yourown jail."There was a slight stirring in the audience, and Tatianas were pals face grew a little cold. "Thatis not an issue we are addressing today. Increasing our protection is. I believe you have evencommented in the past that the guardian ranks are lacking in numbers." My own words, thrownback at me from last night. "They need to be filled. You--and many of your companions--haveproven youre able to defend us.""We were exceptions!" It was egotistical, but it was the truth. "Not all novices have reached thatlevel."A dangerous glint appeared in her eye, and her voice grew silky smooth again. "Well, then,perhaps we need more excellent training. Perhaps we should send you to St. Vladimirs or someother academy so that you can improve your young colleagues education. My understanding isthat your upcoming assignment will be a permanent administrative one here at Court. If youwanted to help make this new decree successful, we could change that assignment and make youan instructor instead. It might speed up your return to a bodyguard assignment."I gave her a dangerous smile of my own. "Do not," I warned, "try to threaten, bribe, or blackmailme. Ever. You wont like the consequences."That might have been going too far. People in the audience exchanged startled looks. Some oftheir expressions were disgusted, as though they could expect nothing better of me. I recognizeda few of those Moroi. They were ones Id overheard talking about my relationship with Adrianand how the queen hated it. I also suspected a number of royals from last nights ceremony werehere too. Theyd seen Tatiana lead me out and no doubt thought my outburst and disrespect todaywere a type of revenge.The Moroi werent the only ones who reacted. Regardless of whether they shared my opinions, afew guardians stepped forward. I made sure to stay exactly where I was, and that, along withTatianas lack of fear, kept them in place.
  • "Were getting weary of this conversation," Tatiana said, switching to the royal we. "You canspeak more--and do so in the proper manner--when we have our next meeting and open the floorto comments. For now, whether you like it or not, this resolution has been passed. Its law."Shes letting you off! Lissas voice was back in my head. Back away from this before you dosomething thatll get you in real trouble. Argue later.It was ironic because Id been on the verge of exploding and letting my full rage out. Lissaswords stopped me--but not because of their content. It was Lissa herself. When Adrian and I haddiscussed the results earlier, Id noted one piece of faulty logic."It wasnt a fair vote," I declared. "It wasnt legal.""Are you a lawyer now, Miss Hathaway?" The queen was amused, and her dropping of myguardian title now was a blatant lack of respect. "If youre referring to the monarchs votecarrying more weight than others on the Council, then we can assure you that that has beenMoroi law for centuries in such situations." She glanced at her fellow Council members, none ofwhom raised a protest. Even those whod voted against her couldnt find fault with her point."Yeah, but the entire Council didnt vote," I said. "Youve had an empty spot in the Council forthe last few years--but not anymore." I turned and pointed at where my friends were sitting."Vasilisa Dragomir is eighteen now and can fill her familys spot." In all of this chaos, herbirthday had been overlooked, even by me.The eyes in the room turned on Lissa--something she did not like. However, Lissa was used tobeing in the public eye. She knew what was expected of a royal, how to look and carry herself.So, rather than cringing, she sat up straight and stared ahead with a cool, regal look that said shecould walk up to that table right now and demand her birthright. Whether it was that magnificentattitude alone or maybe a little spirit charisma, she was almost impossible to look away from.Her beauty had its usual luminous quality, and around the room, a lot of the faces held the sameawe for her that Id observed around Court. Dimitris transformation was still an enigma, but
  • those who believed in it were indeed regarding her as some kind of saint. She was becominglarger than life in so many peoples eyes, both with her family name and mysterious powers--andnow the alleged ability to restore Strigoi.Smug, I looked back at Tatiana. "Isnt eighteen the legal voting age?" Checkmate, bitch."Yes," she said cheerfully. "If the Dragomirs had a quorum."I wouldnt say my stunning victory exactly shattered at that point, but it certainly lost a little ofits luster. "A what?""A quorum. By law, for a Moroi family to have a Council vote, they must have a family. Shedoes not. Shes the only one."I stared in disbelief. "What, youre saying she needs to go have a kid to get a vote?"Tatiana grimaced. "Not now, of course. Someday, Im sure. For a family to have a vote, theymust have at least two members, one of whom must be over eighteen. Its Moroi law--again, alaw thats been in the books for centuries."A few people were exchanging confused and surprised looks. This was clearly not a law manywere familiar with. Of course, this situation--a royal line reduced to one person--wasnt one thathad occurred in recent history, if it had ever occurred at all."Its true," said Ariana Szelsky reluctantly. "Ive read it."Okay, that was when my stunning victory shattered. The Szelsky family was one I trusted, andAriana was the older sister of the guy my mom protected. Ariana was a pretty bookish kind of
  • person, and seeing as shed voted against the guardian age change, it seemed unlikely shed offerthis piece of evidence if it werent true.With no more ammunition, I resorted to old standbys."That," I told Tatiana, "is the most fucked-up law I have ever heard."That did it. The audience broke into shocked chatter, and Tatiana gave up on whatever pretenseof friendliness shed been clinging to. She beat the herald to any orders he might have given."Remove her!" shouted Tatiana. Even with the rapidly growing noise, her voice rang clearlythrough the room. "We will not tolerate this sort of vulgar behavior!"I had guardians on me in a flash. Honestly, with how often Id been dragged away from placeslately, there was almost something comfortably familiar about it. I didnt fight the guardians asthey led me to the door, but I also didnt let them take me without a few parting words."You could change the quorum law if you wanted, you sanctimonious bitch!" I yelled back."Youre twisting the law because youre selfish and afraid! Youre making the worst mistake ofyour life. Youll regret it! Wait and see--youll wish youd never done it!"I dont know if anyone heard my tirade because by then, the hall was back to the chaos it hadbeen in when I entered. The guardians--three of them--didnt let go of me until we were outside.Once they released me, we all stood around awkwardly for a moment."What now?" I asked. I tried to keep the anger out of my voice. I was still furious and worked up,but it wasnt these guys fault. "Are you going to lock me up?" Seeing as it would bring me backto Dimitri, it would almost be a reward.
  • "They only said to remove you," one of the guardians pointed out. "No one said what to do withyou after that."Another guardian, old and grizzled but still fierce looking, gave me a wry look. "Id take offwhile you can, before they really have a chance to punish you.""Not that they wont find you if they really want to," added the first guardian.With that, the three of them headed back inside, leaving me confused and upset. My body wasstill revved for a fight, and I was filled with the frustration I always experienced whenever I wasfaced with a situation I felt powerless in. All that yelling for nothing. Id accomplished nothing."Rose?"I shifted from my churning emotions and looked up at the building. The older guardian hadntgone inside and still stood in the doorway. His face was stoic, but I thought I saw a twinkle in hiseye. "For what its worth," he told me, "I thought you were fantastic in there."I didnt feel much like smiling, but my lips betrayed me. "Thanks," I said.Well, maybe Id accomplished one thing. Chapter Twenty-twoI DIDNT TAKE THE GUYS advice and tear off out of there, though I didnt exactly sit on thefront step either. I lingered nearby in a cluster of cherry trees, figuring it would only be a matterof time before the assembly ended and people spilled out the doors. After several minutes passedand nothing happened, I flipped into Lissas mind and discovered things were still in full force.Despite Tatiana declaring twice now that the session was over, people were still standing aroundand arguing in groups.
  • Tasha was standing in one such group with Lissa and Adrian, making one of the impassionedspeeches she was so good at. Tasha might not be as coldly calculating as Tatiana was when itcame to political moves, but Tasha did have a keen sense of ripples in the system and recognizedopportunities when they came. She was against the age-lowering decree. She was for teachingMoroi to fight. Neither of those was getting her very far, so she jumped on the next best thing:Lissa."Why are we arguing among ourselves about how best to kill Strigoi when we can save them?"Tasha put one arm around Lissa and one around Adrian, drawing them both forward. Lissa stillwore her serenely confident look, but Adrian looked ready to bolt if given half a chance."Vasilisa--who, by the way, is indeed being denied her fair voice here, thanks to an archaic law--has shown that Strigoi can be brought back.""That hasnt been proven," exclaimed one man in the crowd."Are you kidding?" asked a woman beside him. "My sister was with the group that brought himback. She says hes definitely a dhampir. He was even out in the sun!"Tasha nodded in approval at the woman. "I was there as well. And now we have two spirit userscapable of doing this for other Strigoi."As much as I respected Tasha, I wasnt entirely with her on this. The amount of power--not tomention effort involved in the staking--that Lissa had required with Dimitri had been staggering.It had even temporarily hurt the bond. That didnt mean she couldnt do it again. Nor did it meanshe wouldnt want to again. She was just naively compassionate enough to throw herself into theline of fire to help others. But I knew the more power a spirit user wielded, the quicker theydtravel down the road to insanity.And Adrian... well, he was almost a nonissue here. Even if he wanted to go staking Strigoi, hedidnt have the kind of healing power it would take to restore one--at least not now. Its wasntuncommon for Moroi to use their elements in different ways. Some fire users, like Christian, had
  • skilled control of flame itself. Others could only use their magic to, say, warm the air in a room.Likewise, Lissa and Adrian had their strengths with spirit. His greatest healing triumph wasmending a fracture, and she still couldnt walk dreams, no matter how much she practiced.So, really, Tasha had one spirit user capable of saving Strigoi, and that one could hardlytransform legions of those monsters. Tasha did seem to recognize this a little."The Council shouldnt be wasting time with age laws," she continued. "We need to sink ourresources into finding more spirit users and recruiting them to help save Strigoi." She fixed hergaze on someone in the crowd. "Martin, didnt your brother get turned against his will? Withenough work, we could bring him back to you. Alive.Just like you knew him. Otherwise, hesjust going to get staked when guardians find him--and of course hell be slaughtering innocentsalong the way."Yeah, Tasha was good. She could paint a good image and nearly brought that Martin guy totears. She didnt really mention people whod turned Strigoi willingly. Lissa, still standing withher, wasnt sure how she felt about the idea of a Strigoi-saving spirit army, but she did recognizehow this was all part of several other plans Tasha had--including one to get Lissa voting rights.Tasha played up Lissas abilities and character, scoffing at what was clearly an outdated law froman era that never could have foreseen this situation. Tasha further pointed out that a full Councilof twelve families would send a message to Strigoi everywhere about Moroi unity.I didnt want to hear any more. Id let Tasha wield her political magic and talk more to Lissalater. I was still so agitated about what had happened when Id yelled at the Council that Icouldnt stand to see that room anymore. I left her mind and returned to my own, yelping when Isaw a face right in front of mine."Ambrose!"One of the best-looking dhampirs on the planet--after Dimitri, of course--flashed me a gleaming,movie-star smile. "You were so still, I thought maybe you were trying to be a dryad."
  • I blinked. "A what?"He gestured to the cherry trees. "Nature spirits.Beautiful women who become one with trees.""Im not sure if that was a compliment or not," I said. "But its good to see you again."Ambrose was a true oddity in our culture: a male dhampir who had neither taken guardian vowsnor run off to hide among humans. Female dhampirs often chose not to join the guardians inorder to focus on raising families. Thats why we were so rare. But men? They had no excuse, asfar as most people were concerned. Rather than skulk off in disgrace, however, Ambrose hadchosen to stay and simply work for the Moroi another way. He was essentially a servant--a high-class one who served drinks at elite parties and gave massages to royal women. He also, ifrumors were true, served Tatiana in physical ways. That was so creepy, though, I promptly put itout of my mind."You too," he told me. "But if you arent communing with nature, what are you doing?""Its a long story. I kind of got thrown out of a Council meeting."He looked impressed. "Literally thrown out?""Dragged, I guess. Im surprised I havent seen you around," I mused. "Of course, Ive kind ofbeen, um, distracted this last week.""So Ive heard," he said, giving me a sympathetic look. "Although, I actually have beenaway.Just got back last night."
  • "Just in time for the fun," I muttered.The guileless look on his face told me hadnt heard about the decree yet. "What are you doingnow?" he asked. "This doesnt look like punishment. Did you finish your sentence?""Something like that. Im kind of waiting for someone now. Was just going to hang out in myroom.""Well, if youre killing time, why dont you come see Aunt Rhonda?""Rhonda?" I scowled. "No offense, but your aunt didnt really impress me with her abilities lasttime.""None taken," he said cheerfully. "But shes been wondering about you. And Vasilisa. So, ifyoure just hanging around..."I hesitated. He was right that I had nothing better to do right now. I was stuck on options withboth Dimitri and the Councils idiotic resolutions. Yet Rhonda--his fortune-telling Moroi aunt--wasnt someone I really wanted to see again. Despite my glib words, the truth was that inretrospect, some of Rhondas predictions had come true. I just didnt like what theyd been."Fine," I said, trying to look bored. "Make it fast."He smiled again, like he could see through my ruse, and led me off to a building Id been to oncebefore. It housed a luxurious salon and spa frequented by royal Moroi. Lissa and I had had ournails done there, and as Ambrose and I wound our way through it to Rhondas lair, I felt a strangepang within me. Manicures and pedicures... they seemed like the most trivial things in the world.But on that day, theyd been wonderful. Lissa and I had laughed and grown closer... just beforethe school was attacked and everything fell apart....
  • Rhonda told fortunes in a back room that was far from the busy spa. Despite the seedy feel of it,she did a pretty brisk business and even had her own receptionist. Or, well, she used to. Thistime, the desk was empty, and Ambrose led me straight through to Rhondas room. It lookedexactly the same as before, like being inside a heart. Everything was red: the wallpaper, thedecorations, and the cushions covering the floor.Rhonda herself sat on the floor, eating a cup of yogurt, which seemed terribly ordinary forsomeone who allegedly wielded mystical powers. Curly black hair cascaded around hershoulders, making the large gold hoops in her ears gleam."Rose Hathaway," she said happily, setting the yogurt aside. "What a nice surprise.""Shouldnt you have seen me coming?" I asked dryly.Her lips twitched with amusement. "Thats not my power.""Sorry to interrupt your dinner," Ambrose said, gracefully folding his muscled body as he satdown. "But Rose isnt easy to catch hold of.""I imagine not," she said. "Im impressed you got her to come at all. What can I do for you today,Rose?"I shrugged and sank down beside Ambrose. "I dont know. Im only here because Ambrose talkedme into it.""She didnt think your last reading was very good," he said."Hey!" I shot him a chastising look. "Thats not exactly what I said."
  • Last time, Lissa and Dimitri had been with me. Rhondas tarot cards had shown Lissa crownedwith power and light--no surprise. Rhonda had said Dimitri would lose what he valued most, andhe had: his soul. And me? Rhonda had bluntly told me that Id kill the undead. Id scoffed at that,knowing I had a lifetime of Strigoi-killing ahead of me. Now I wondered if "undead" meant theStrigoi part of Dimitri. Even if I hadnt driven the stake, Id certainly played a major role."Maybe another reading would help the other one make more sense?" she offered.My mind was putting together another fraud psychic joke, which was why it was so astonishingwhen my mouth said, "Thats the problem. The other one did make sense. Im afraid... Im afraidof what else the cards will show.""The cards dont make the future," she said gently. "If somethings meant to be, itll be, regardlessof whether you see it here. And even then... well, the future is always changing. If we had nochoices, thered be no point in living.""See now," I said flippantly, "thats the kind of vague gypsy response I was hoping for.""Roma," she corrected. "Not gypsy." Despite my snark, she still seemed to be in a good mood.Easygoing attitudes must have run in their family. "Do you want the cards or not?"Did I? She was right about one thing--the future would unfold with or without me seeing it in thecards. And even if the cards showed it, I probably wouldnt understand it until afterward."Okay," I said. "Just for fun. I mean, last time was probably a lucky guess."Rhonda rolled her eyes but said nothing as she began shuffling her tarot deck. She did it withsuch precision that the cards seemed to move themselves. When she finally stopped, she handedthe deck to me to cut. I did, and she put it back together.
  • "We did three cards before," she said. "Weve got time to do more if youd like. Five, perhaps?""The more there are, the more likely it is that anything can get explained.""If you dont believe in them, then it shouldnt be an issue.""Okay, then. Five."She grew serious as she flipped out the cards, her eyes carefully studying them. Two of the cardshad come out upside down. I didnt take that as a good sign. Last time, Id learned that it madeseemingly happy cards... well, not so happy.The first one was one the Two of Cups, showing a man and a woman together in a grassy,flower-filled field while the sun shone above them. Naturally, it was upside down."Cups are tied to emotions," Rhonda explained. "The Two of Cups shows a union, a perfect loveand blossoming of joyous emotions. But since its inverted--""You know what?" I interrupted. "I think Im getting the hang of this. You can skip that one. Ihave a good idea what it means." It might as well have been Dimitri and me on that card, the cupempty and full of heartache.... I really didnt want to hear Rhonda analyze what was alreadytearing my heart up.So she went on to the next one: the Queen of Swords, also upside down.
  • "Cards like this refer to specific people," Rhonda told me. The Queen of Swords looked veryimperious, with auburn hair and silver robes. "The Queen of Swords is clever. She thrives onknowledge, can outwit her enemies, and is ambitious."I sighed. "But upside down...""Upside down," said Rhonda, "all of those traits get twisted. Shes still smart, still trying to gether way... but shes doing it through insincere ways. Theres a lot of hostility and deception here.Id say you have an enemy.""Yeah," I said, eyeing the crown. "I think I can guess who. I just called her a sanctimoniousbitch."Rhonda didnt comment and moved on to the next one. It was facing the right way, but I kind ofwished it wasnt. It had a whole bunch of swords stuck in the ground and a woman tied andblindfolded to one. Eight of Swords."Oh, come on," I exclaimed. "What is it with me and swords? You gave me one this depressinglast time." It had shown a woman weeping in front of a wall of swords."That was the Nine of Swords," she agreed. "It could always be worse.""I have a hard time believing that."She picked up the rest of the deck and scanned through it, finally pulling out one card. The Tenof Swords. "You could have drawn this." It showed a dead guy lying on the ground with a bunchof swords driven through him."Point taken," I said. Ambrose chuckled beside me. "Whats the nine mean?"
  • "The nine is being trapped. Unable to get out of a situation. It can also mean slander oraccusation. Summoning courage to escape something." I glanced back at the queen, thinking ofthe things Id said in the Council room. Those would definitely count as accusations. And beingtrapped? Well, there was always the possibility of a lifetime of paperwork...I sighed. "Okay, whats the next one?" It was the best-looking one in the bunch, the Six ofSwords. It had a bunch of people in a boat, rowing off over moonlit water."A journey," she said."I was just on a journey. A few of them." I eyed her suspiciously. "Man, this isnt, like, somekind of a spiritual journey is it?"Ambrose laughed again. "Rose, I wish youd get tarot readings every day."Rhonda ignored him. "If it were in cups, maybe. But swords are tangible. Action.A true, out-and-about journey."Where on earth would I go? Did it mean I was traveling to the Academy like Tatiana hadsuggested? Or was it possible that, in spite of all my rule breaking and calling her royal highnessnames, I might actually get an assignment after all? One away from Court?"You could be looking for something. It may be a physical journey combined with a spiritualjourney," she said, which sounded like a total way to cover her ass. "This last one..." Hereyebrows knitted into a frown at the fifth card. "This is hidden from me."I peered at it. "The Page of Cups.Seems pretty obvious. Its a page with, um, cups."
  • "Usually I have a clear vision.... The cards speak to me in how they connect. This ones notclear.""The only thing thats not clear is whether its a girl or a boy." The person on the card lookedyoung but had hair and an androgynous face that made the gender impossible to determine. Theblue tights and tunic didnt help, though the sunny field in the background seemed promising."It can be either," Rhonda said. "Its the lowest in rank of the cards that represent people in eachsuit: King, Queen, Knight, and then Page. Whoever the page is, its someone trustworthy andcreative. Optimistic. It could mean someone who goes on the journey with you--or maybe thereason for your journey."Whatever optimism or truth Id had in the cards pretty much disappeared with that. Given thatshed just said about a hundred things it could be, I didnt really consider it authoritative. Usually,she noticed my skepticism, but her attention was still on the card as she frowned."But I just cant tell.... Theres a cloud around it. Why? It doesnt make sense."Something about her confusion sent a chill down my spine. I always told myself this was fake,but if shed been making it all up... well, wouldnt she have made something up about the Page ofCups? She wasnt putting on a very convincing act if this last card was making her questionherself. The thought that maybe there was some mystical force out there blocking her sobered upmy cynical attitude.With a sigh, she looked up at last. "Sorry thats all I can tell you. Did the rest help?"I scanned the cards. Heartache.An enemy.Accusations.Entrapment.Travel. "Some of it tells methings I already know. The rest leaves me with more questions."She smiled knowingly. "Thats how it usually is."
  • I thanked her for the reading, secretly glad I didnt have to pay for it. Ambrose walked me out,and I tried to shake off the mood Rhondas fortune had left me in. I had enough problems in mylife without letting a bunch of stupid cards bother me."You going to be okay?" he asked when we finally emerged. The sun was climbing higher. TheRoyal Court would be going to bed soon, ending what had been a turbulent day. "I... I wouldnthave brought you if Id known how much it would upset you.""No, no," I said. "Its not the cards. Not exactly. Theres a bunch of other things going on... oneyou should probably know about."I hadnt wanted to bring up the decree when wed first run into each other, but as a dhampir, hehad a right to hear about what had happened. His face was perfectly still as I spoke, save for hisdark brown eyes, which grew wider while the story progressed."Theres some mistake," he said at last. "They wouldnt do that. They wouldnt do that to sixteen-year-olds.""Yeah, well, I didnt think so either, but they were apparently serious enough about it to throwme out when I, um, questioned it.""I can just imagine your questioning. All thisll do is make more dhampirs drop out of theguardians... unless, of course, being that young makes them more open for brainwashing.""Kind of a sensitive area for you, huh?" I asked. After all, he too was a guardian drop-out.He shook his head. "Staying in this society was nearly impossible for me. If any of those kids dodecide to drop out, they wont have the powerful friends I did. Theyll be outcasts. Thats allthisll do. Either kill off teens or cut them off from their own people."
  • I wondered what powerful friends hed had, but this was hardly the time to learn his life history."Well, that royal bitch doesnt seem to care."The thoughtful, distracted look in his eyes suddenly sharpened. "Dont call her that," he warnedwith a glare. "This isnt her fault."Whoa. Cue surprise. Id almost never seen sexy, charismatic Ambrose be anything but friendly."Of course its her fault! Shes the supreme ruler of the Moroi, remember?"His scowl deepened. "The Council voted too. Not her alone.""Yeah, but she voted in support of this decree. She swayed the vote.""There must have been a reason. You dont know her like I do. She wouldnt want this kind ofthing."I started to ask if he was out of his mind but paused when I remembered his relationship with thequeen. Those romantic rumors made me queasy, but if they were true, I supposed he might havelegitimate concern for her. I also decided it was probably best that I didnt know her the way hedid. The bite marks on his neck certainly indicated some sort of intimate activity."Whatevers going on between you is your business," I told him calmly, "but shes used it to trickyou into thinking shes someone she isnt. She did it to me too, and I fell for it. Its all a scam.""I dont believe it," he said, still stone-faced. "As queen, shes put into all sorts of toughsituations. There must be more to it--shell change the decree, Im certain of it."
  • "As queen," I said, imitating his tone, "she should have the ability to--"My words fell off as a voice spoke in my head. Lissas.Rose, youre going to want to see this. But you have to promise not to cause any trouble. Lissaflashed a location to me, along with a sense of urgency.Ambroses hard look shifted to one of concern. "Are you okay?""I--yeah. Lissa needs me." I sighed. "Look, I dont want us to fight, okay? Obviously weve eachgot different views of the situation... but I think we both agree on the same key point.""That kids shouldnt be sent off to die? Yeah, we can agree on that." We smiled tentatively ateach other, and the anger between us diffused. "Ill talk to her, Rose. Ill find out the real storyand let you know, okay?""Okay." I had a hard time believing anyone could really have a heart-to-heart with Tatiana, butagain, there might be more to their relationship than I realized. "Thanks. It was good seeingyou.""You too. Now go--go to Lissa."I needed no further urging. Along with the sense of urgency, Lissa had passed one other messagethrough the bond that sent my feet flying: Its about Dimitri. Chapter Twenty-threeI DIDNT NEED THE BOND to find Lissa. The crowd tipped me off to where she--and Dimitri--were.
  • My first thought was that some kind of stoning or medieval mobbing was going on. Then Irealized that the people standing around were simply watching something. I pushed throughthem, heedless of the dirty looks I got, until I stood in the front row of the onlookers. What Ifound brought me to a halt.Lissa and Dimitri sat side by side on a bench while three Moroi and--yikes--Hans sat oppositethem. Guardians stood scattered around them, tense and ready to jump in if things went bad,apparently. Before I even heard a word, I knew exactly what was going on. This was aninterrogation, an investigation to determine what Dimitri was exactly.Under most circumstances, this would be a weird place for a formal investigation. It was,ironically, one of the courtyards Eddie and I had worked on, the one that stood in the shadow ofthe statue of the young queen. The Courts church stood nearby. This grassy area wasnt exactlyholy ground, but it was close enough to the church that people could run to it in an emergency.Crucifixes didnt hurt Strigoi, but they couldnt cross over into a church, mosque, or any othersacred place. Between that and the morning sun, this was probably as safe a location and time asofficials could muster up to question Dimitri.I recognized one of the Moroi questioners, Reece Tarus. He was related to Adrian on his momsside but had also spoken in favor of the age decree. So I took an instant dislike to him,particularly considering the haughty tone he used toward Dimitri."Do you find the sun blinding?" asked Reece. He had a clipboard in front of him and appeared tobe going down a checklist."No," said Dimitri, voice smooth and controlled. His attention was totally on his questioners. Hehad no clue I was there, and I kind of liked it that way. I wanted to just gaze at him for a momentand admire his features."What if you stare into the sun?"
  • Dimitri hesitated, and Im not sure anyone but me caught the sudden glint in his eyes--or knewwhat it meant. The question was stupid, and I think Dimitri--maybe, just maybe--wanted tolaugh. With his normal skill, he maintained his composure."Anyone would go blind staring into the sun long enough," he replied. "Id go through whatanyone else here would."Reece didnt seem to like the answer, but there was no fault in the logic. He pursed his lipstogether and moved on to the next question. "Does it scald your skin?""Not at the moment."Lissa glanced over at the crowd and noticed me. She couldnt feel me the way I could throughour bond, but sometimes it seemed she had an uncanny sense of when I was around. I think shesensed my aura if I was close enough, since all spirit users claimed the field of light aroundshadow-kissed people was very distinct. She gave me a small smile before turning back to thequestioning.Dimitri, ever vigilant, noticed her tiny movement. He looked over to see what had distracted her,caught sight of me, and faltered a little on Reeces next question, which was, "Have you noticedwhether your eyes occasionally turn red?""I..." Dimitri stared at me for several moments and then jerked his head back toward Reece. "Ihavent been around many mirrors. But I think my guards would have noticed, and none of themhave said anything."Nearby, one of the guardians made a small noise. He barely managed to keep a straight face, butI think he too had wanted to snicker at the ridiculous line of questioning. I couldnt recall hisname, but when Id been at Court long ago, he and Dimitri had chatted and laughed quite a bitwhen together. If an old friend was starting to believe Dimitri was a dhampir again, then that hadto be a good sign.
  • The Moroi next to Reece glared around, trying to figure out where the noise had come from, butdiscovered nothing. The questioning continued, this time having to do with whether Dimitriwould step into the church if they asked him to."I can go right now," he told them. "Ill go to services tomorrow if you want." Reece madeanother note, no doubt wondering if he could get the priest to douse Dimitri in holy water."This is all a distraction," a familiar voice said in my ear. "Smoke and mirrors. Thats what AuntTasha says." Christian now stood beside me."It needs to be done," I murmured back. "They have to see that he isnt Strigoi anymore.""Yeah, but theyve barely signed the age law. The queen gave the go-ahead for this as soon as theCouncils session let out because its sensational and will make people pay attention to somethingnew. It was how they finally got the hall cleared. Hey, go look at the sideshow!"I could almost hear Tasha saying that word for word. Regardless, there was truth to it. I feltconflicted. I wanted Dimitri to be free. I wanted him to be the way he used to be. Yet I didntappreciate Tatiana doing this for her own political gain and not because she actually cared aboutwhat was right. This was possibly the most monumental thing to happen in our history. It neededto be treated as such. Dimitris fate shouldnt be a convenient "sideshow" to distract everyonefrom an unfair law.Reece was now asking both Lissa and Dimitri to describe exactly what theyd experienced thenight of the raid. I had a feeling this was something theyd recounted quite a bit. AlthoughDimitri had been the picture of nonthreatening composure so far, I still sensed that gray feel tohim, the guilt and torment he felt over what he had done as a Strigoi. Yet, when he turned tolisten to Lissa tell her version of the story, his face lit up with wonder. Awe.Worship.
  • Jealousy flashed through me. His feelings werent romantic, but it didnt matter. What matteredwas that he had rejected me but regarded her as the greatest thing in the world. Hed told menever to talk to him again and sworn hed do anything for her. Again I felt that petulant sense ofbeing wronged. I refused to believe that he couldnt love me anymore. It wasnt possible, not afterall he and I had been through together. Not after everything wed felt for each other."They sure seem close," Christian noted, a suspicious note in his voice. I had no time to tell himhis worries were unfounded because I wanted to hear what Dimitri had to say.The story of his change was hard for others to follow, largely because spirit was still somisunderstood. Reece got as much out of it as he could and then turned the questioning over toHans. Hans, ever practical, had no need for extensive interrogation. He was a man of action, notwords. Gripping a stake in his hand, he asked Dimitri to touch it. The standing guardians tensed,probably in case Dimitri tried to grab the stake and go on a rampage.Instead, Dimitri calmly reached out and held the top of the stake for a few moments. There was acollective intake of breath as everyone waited for him to scream in pain since Strigoi couldnttouch charmed silver. Instead, Dimitri looked bored.Then he astonished them all. Drawing his hand back, he held out the bottom of his muscledforearm toward Hans. With the sunny weather, Dimitri was wearing a T-shirt, leaving the skinthere bare."Cut me with it," he told Hans.Hans arched an eyebrow. "Cutting you with this will hurt no matter what you are.""It would be unbearable if I were a Strigoi," Dimitri pointed out. His face was hard anddetermined. He was the Dimitri Id seen in battle, the Dimitri who never backed down. "Do it.Dont go easy on me."
  • Hans didnt react at first. Clearly, this was an unexpected course of action. Decision finallyflashed across his features, and he struck out, swiping the stakes point against Dimitris skin. AsDimitri had requested, Hans didnt hold back. The point dug deep, and blood welled up. SeveralMoroi, not used to seeing blood (unless they were drinking it), gasped at the violence. As one,we all leaned forward.Dimitris face showed he definitely felt pain, but charmed silver on a Strigoi wouldnt just hurt--itwould burn. Id cut a lot of Strigoi with stakes and heard them scream in agony. Dimitri grimacedand bit his lip as the blood flowed over his arm. I swear, there was pride in his eyes at his abilityto stay strong through that.When it became obvious he wouldnt start flailing, Lissa reached toward him. I sensed herintentions; she wanted to heal him."Wait," said Hans. "A Strigoi would heal from this in minutes."I had to give Hans credit. Hed worked two tests into one. Dimitri shot him a grateful look, andHans gave a small nod of acknowledgment. Hans believed, I realized. Whatever his faults, Hanstruly thought Dimitri was a dhampir again. I would love him forever for that, no matter howmuch filing he made me do.So, we all stood there watching poor Dimitri bleed. It was kind of sick, really, but the testworked. It was obvious to everyone that the cut wasnt going anywhere. Lissa was finally givenleave to heal it, and that caused a bigger reaction among the crowd. Murmurs of wondersurrounded me, and those enraptured goddess-worshipping looks showed on peoples faces.Reece glanced at the crowd. "Does anyone have any questions to add to ours?"No one spoke. They were all dumbfounded by the sights before them.
  • Well, someone had to step forward. Literally."I do," I said, striding toward them.No, Rose, begged Lissa.Dimitri wore an equally displeased look. Actually, so did almost everyone sitting near him.When Reeces gaze fell on me, I had a feeling he was seeing me in the Council room all overagain, calling Tatiana a sanctimonious bitch. I put my hands on my hips, not caring what theythought. This was my chance to force Dimitri to acknowledge me."When you used to be Strigoi," I began, making it clear that I believed that was in the past, "youwere very well connected. You knew about the whereabouts of lots of Strigoi in Russia and theU.S., right?"Dimitri eyed me carefully, trying to figure out where I was going. "Yes.""Do you still know them?"Lissa frowned. She thought I was going to inadvertently implicate Dimitri as still being incontact with other Strigoi."Yes," he said. "So long as none of them have moved." The answer came more swiftly this time.I wasnt sure if hed guessed my tactic or if he just trusted that my Rose-logic would gosomewhere useful."Would you share that information with the guardians?" I asked. "Would you tell us all theStrigoi hideouts so that we could strike out against them?"
  • That got a reaction. Proactively seeking Strigoi was as hotly debated as the other issues goingaround right now, with strong opinions on all sides. I heard those opinions reiterated behind mein the crowd, some people saying I was suggesting suicide while others acknowledged we had avaluable tool.Dimitris eyes lit up. It wasnt the adoring look he often gave Lissa, but I didnt care. It wassimilar to the ones we used to share, in those moments where we understood each other soperfectly, we didnt even need to vocalize what we were thinking. That connection flashedbetween us, as did his approval--and gratitude."Yes," he replied, voice strong and loud. "I can tell you everything I know about Strigoi plansand locations. Id face them with you or stay behind--whichever you wanted."Hans leaned forward in his chair, expression eager. "That could be invaluable." More points forHans. He was on the side of hitting out at Strigoi before they came to us.Reece flushed--or maybe he was just feeling the sun. In their efforts to see if Dimitri would burnup in the light, the Moroi were exposing themselves to discomfort. "Now hold on," Reeceexclaimed over the increasing noise. "That has never been a tactic we endorse. Besides, he couldalways lie--"His protests were cut off by a feminine scream. A small Moroi boy, no more than six, hadsuddenly broken from the crowd and run toward us. It was his mother who had screamed. Imoved in to stop him, grabbing his arm. I wasnt afraid that Dimitri would hurt him, only that theboys mother would have a heart attack. She came forward, face grateful."I have questions," the boy, obviously trying to be brave, said in a small voice.His mother reached for him, but I held up my hand. "Hang on a sec." I smiled down at him."What do you want to ask? Go ahead." Behind him, fear flashed over his mothers face, and she
  • cast an anxious look at Dimitri. "I wont let anything happen to him," I whispered, though shehad no way of knowing I could back that up. Nonetheless, she stayed where she was.Reece rolled his eyes. "This is ridic--""If youre Strigoi," the boy interrupted loudly, "then why dont you have horns? My friend Jeffreysaid Strigoi have horns."Dimitris eyes fell not on the boy but on me for a moment. Again, that spark of knowing shotbetween us. Then, face smooth and serious, Dimitri turned to the boy and answered, "Strigoidont have horns. And even if they did, it wouldnt matter because Im not Strigoi.""Strigoi have red eyes," I explained. "Do his eyes look red?"The boy leaned forward. "No. Theyre brown.""What else do you know about Strigoi?" I asked."They have fangs like us," the boy replied."Do you have fangs?" I asked Dimitri in a singsong voice. I had a feeling this was already-covered territory, but it took on a new feel when asked from a childs perspective.Dimitri smiled--a full, wonderful smile that caught me off guard. Those kinds of smiles were sorare from him. Even when happy or amused, he usually only gave half smiles. This was genuine,showing all his teeth, which were as flat as those of any human or dhampir. No fangs.
  • The boy looked impressed. "Okay, Jonathan," said his mother anxiously. "You asked. Lets gonow.""Strigoi are super strong," continued Jonathan, who possibly aspired to be a future lawyer."Nothing can hurt them." I didnt bother correcting him, for fear hed want to see a stake shovedthrough Dimitris heart. In fact, it was kind of amazing that Reece hadnt already requested that.Jonathan fixed Dimitri with a piercing gaze. "Are you super strong? Can you be hurt?""Of course I can," replied Dimitri. "Im strong, but all sorts of things can still hurt me."And then, being Rose Hathaway, I said something I really shouldnt have to the boy. "You shouldgo punch him and find out."Jonathans mother screamed again, but he was a fast little bastard, eluding her grasp. He ran up toDimitri before anyone could stop him--well, I could have--and pounded his tiny fist againstDimitris knee.Then, with the same reflexes that allowed him to dodge enemy attacks, Dimitri immediatelyfeinted falling backward, as though Jonathan had knocked him over. Clutching his knee, Dimitrigroaned as though he were in terrible pain.Several people laughed, and by then, one of the other guardians had caught hold of Jonathan andreturned him to his near-hysterical mother. As he was being dragged away, Jonathan glancedover his shoulder at Dimitri. "He doesnt seem very strong to me. I dont think hes a Strigoi."This caused more laughter, and the third Moroi interrogator, whod been quiet, snorted and rosefrom his seat. "Ive seen all I need to. I dont think he should walk around unguarded, but hes noStrigoi. Give him a real place to stay and just keep guards on him until further decisions aremade."
  • Reece shot up. "But--"The other man waved him off. "Dont waste any more time. Its hot, and I want to go to bed. Imnot saying I understand what happened, but this is the least of our problems right now, not withhalf the Council wanting to rip the other halfs heads off over the age decree. If anything, whatweve seen today is a good thing--miraculous, even. It could alter the way weve lived. Ill reportback to Her Majesty."And like that, the group began dispersing, but there was wonder on some of their faces. They toowere beginning to realize that if what had happened to Dimitri was real, then everything wedever known about Strigoi was about to change. The guardians stayed with Dimitri, of course, ashe and Lissa rose. I immediately moved toward them, eager to bask in our victory. When hedbeen "knocked over" by Jonathans tiny punch, Dimitri had given me a small smile, and my hearthad leapt. Id known then that Id been right. He did still have feelings for me. But now, in theblink of an eye, that rapport was gone. Seeing me walk toward them, Dimitris face grew coldand guarded again.Rose, said Lissa through the bond. Go away now. Leave him alone."The hell I will," I said, both answering her aloud and addressing him. "I just furthered yourcase.""We were doing fine without you," said Dimitri stiffly."Oh yeah?" I couldnt believe what I was hearing. "You seemed pretty grateful a couple minutesago when I thought up the idea of you helping us against Strigoi."Dimitri turned to Lissa. His voice was low, but it carried to me. "I dont want to see her."
  • "You have to!" I exclaimed. A few of the departing people paused to see what the racket wasabout. "You cant ignore me.""Make her go away," Dimitri growled."Im not--"ROSE!Lissa shouted in my head, shutting me up. Those piercing jade eyes stared me down. Do youwant to help him or not? Standing here and yelling at him is going to make him even more upset!Is that what you want? Do you want people to see that? See him get mad and yell back at youjust so you dont feel invisible? They need to see him calm. They need to see him... normal. Itstrue--you did just help. But if you dont walk away right now, you could ruin everything.I stared at them both aghast, my heart pounding. Her words had all been in my mind, but Lissamight as well have strode up to me and chewed me out aloud. My temper shot up even more. Iwanted to go rant at both of them, but the truth of her words penetrated through my anger.Starting a scene would not help Dimitri. Was it fair that they were sending me away? Was it fairthat the two of them were teaming up and ignoring what Id just done? No. But I wasnt going tolet my hurt pride screw up what Id just achieved. People had to accept Dimitri.I shot them both looks that made my feelings clear and then stormed away. Lissas feelingsimmediately changed to sympathy through the bond, but I blocked them out. I didnt want to hearit.Id barely cleared the churchs grounds when I ran into Daniella Ivashkov. Sweat was starting tosmudge her beautifully applied makeup, making me think shed been out here for a whilewatching the Dimitri-spectacle too. She appeared to have a couple friends with her, but they kepttheir distance and chatted amongst themselves when she stopped in front of me. Swallowing myanger, I reminded myself shed done nothing to piss me off. I forced a smile.
  • "Hi, Lady Ivashkov.""Daniella," she said kindly. "No titles.""Sorry. Its still a weird thing."She nodded toward where Dimitri and Lissa were departing with his guards. "I saw you there,just now. You helped his case, I think. Poor Reece was pretty flustered."I recalled that Reece was related to her. "Oh... Im sorry. I didnt mean to--""Dont apologize. Reece is my uncle, but in this case, I believe in what Vasilisa and Mr. Belikovare saying."Despite how angry Dimitri had just made me, my gut instinct resented the dropping of his"guardian" title. Yet I could forgive her, considering her attitude."You... you believe Lissa healed him? That Strigoi can be restored?" I was realizing there werelots of people who believed. The crowd had just demonstrated as much, and Lissa was stillbuilding her following of devotees. Somehow, my line of thinking always tended to assume allroyals were against me. Daniellas smile turned wry."My own son is a spirit user. Since accepting that, Ive had to accept a lot of other things I didntbelieve were possible."
  • "I suppose you would," I admitted. Beyond her, I noticed a Moroi man standing near some trees.His eyes occasionally fell on us, and I could have sworn Id seen him before. Daniellas nextwords turned my attention back to her."Speaking of Adrian... he was looking for you earlier. Its short notice now, but some of Nathansrelatives are having a late cocktail party in about an hour, and Adrian wanted you to go."Another party. Was that all anyone ever did here at Court? Massacres, miracles... it didnt matter.Everything was cause for a party, I thought bitterly.Id probably been with Ambrose and Rhonda when Adrian went searching. It was interesting. Inpassing on the invitation, Daniella was also saying that she wanted me to go. Unfortunately, Ihad a hard time being as open to it. Nathans family meant the Ivashkovs, and they wouldnt beso friendly."Will the queen be there?" I asked suspiciously."No, she has other engagements.""Are you sure? No unexpected visits?"She laughed. "No, Im certain of it. Rumor has it that you two being in the same room together...isnt such a good idea."I could only imagine the stories going around about my Council performance, particularly sinceAdrians father had been there to witness it."No, not after that ruling. What she did..." The anger Id felt earlier began to blaze again. "It wasunforgivable." That weird guy by the tree was still waiting around. Why?
  • Daniella didnt confirm or deny my statement, and I wondered where she stood on the issue."Shes still quite fond of you."I scoffed. "I have a hard time believing that." Usually, people who yelled at you in public werenttoo "fond" of you, and even Tatianas cool composure had cracked near the end of our spat."Its true. This will blow over, and there might even be a chance for you to be assigned toVasilisa.""You cant be serious," I exclaimed. I should have known better. Daniella Ivashkov didnt reallyseem like the joking type, but I really did believe Id crossed the line with Tatiana."After everything thats happened, they dont want to waste good guardians. Besides, she doesntwant there to be animosity between you.""Yeah? Well, I dont want her bribery! If she thinks putting Dimitri out there and dangling aroyal job is going to change my mind, shes wrong. Shes a lying, scheming--"I stopped abruptly. My voice had gone loud enough that Daniellas nearby friends were nowstaring. And I really didnt want to say the names I thought Tatiana deserved in front of Daniella."Sorry," I said. I attempted civility. "Tell Adrian Ill come to the party... but do you really wantme to go? After I crashed the ceremony the other night? And after, um, other things Ive done?"She shook her head. "What happened at the ceremony is as much Adrians fault as it is yours. Itsdone, and Tatiana let it go. This partys a much more lighthearted event, and if he wants youthere, then I want him to be happy.""Ill go shower and change now and meet him at your place in an hour."
  • She was tactful enough to ignore my earlier outburst. "Wonderful. I know hell be happy to hearthat."I declined to tell her that I was actually happy about the thought of flaunting myself in front ofsome Ivashkovs in the hopes that it would get back to Tatiana. I no longer believed for an instantthat she accepted what was going on with Adrian and me or that she would let my outburst blowover. And truthfully, I did want to see him. We hadnt had much time to talk recently.After Daniella and her friends left, I figured it was time to get to the bottom of things. I headedstraight over to the Moroi whod been lurking around, hands on my hips."Okay," I demanded. "Who are you, and what do you want?"He was only a few years older than me and didnt seem at all fazed by my tough-girl attitude. Hecrooked me a smile, and I again pondered where Id seen him."Ive got a message for you," he said. "And some gifts."He handed over a tote bag. I looked inside and found a laptop, some cords, and several pieces ofpaper. I stared up at him in disbelief."Whats this?""Something you need to get a move on--and not let anyone else know about. The note willexplain everything."
  • "Dont play spy movie with me! Im not doing anything until you--" His face clicked. Id seenhim back at St. Vladimirs, around the time of my graduation--always hovering in thebackground. I groaned, suddenly understanding the secretive nature--and cocky attitude. "Youwork for Abe." Chapter Twenty-fourTHE MAN GRINNED. "YOU MAKE that sound like a bad thing."I made a face and looked back into the techno-bag with new appreciation. "Whats going on?""Im the messenger. I just run errands for Mr. Mazur.""Is that a nice way of saying you spy for him? Find out everyones dirty secrets so that he can usethem against people and keep playing his games?" Abe seemed to know everything abouteveryone--especially royal politics. How else could he manage it without having eyes and earseverywhere? Say, at Court? For all I knew, he had my room wired with microphones."Spyings a harsh word." I notice the guy didnt deny it. "Besides, he pays well. And hes a goodboss." He turned from me, job done, but gave one last warning. "Like I said--its time sensitive.Read the note as soon as you can."I had half a mind to throw it at the guy. I was getting used to the idea of being Abes daughter,but that didnt mean I wanted to get tied up in some wacky scheme of his. A bag of hardwareseemed foreboding.Nonetheless, I hauled it back to my suite and emptied the contents onto my bed. There were afew sheets of paper, the top one being a typed cover letter.Rose,
  • I hope Tad was able to get this to you in a timely manner. And I hope you werent too mean tohim. Im doing this on behalf of someone who wants to speak to you about an urgent matter.However, its a conversation that no one else must hear. The laptop and satellite modem in thisbag will allow you to have a private discussion, so long as youre in a private location. Iveincluded step-by-step instructions on how to configure it. Your meeting will take place at 7 a.m.There was no name at the bottom, but I didnt need one. I set the letter down and stared at thejumble of cords. Seven was less than an hour away."Oh, come on, old man," I exclaimed.To Abes credit, the accompanying papers did have very basic directions that didnt require acomputer engineers insight. The only problem was, there were a lot of them, detailing whereeach cord went, what password to log in with, how to configure the modem, and so on. For amoment I considered ignoring it all. Yet when someone like Abe used the word urgent, it mademe think maybe I shouldnt be so hasty in my dismissal.So, bracing myself for some technical acrobatics, I set to following his instructions. It tookalmost the entire time I had, but I managed to hook up the modem and camera and access thesecure program that would allow me to video-conference with Abes mysterious contact. Ifinished with a few minutes to spare and waited the time out by staring at a black window in themiddle of the screen, wondering what Id gotten myself into.At exactly seven, the window came to life, and a familiar--but unexpected--face appeared."Sydney?" I asked in surprise.The video had that same, slightly jerky feel most Internet feeds had, but nonetheless, the face ofmy (kind of) friend Sydney Sage smiled back at me. Hers was a dry-humored smile, but that wastypical of her.
  • "Good morning," she said, stifling a yawn. From the state of her chin-length blond hair, it waslikely shed just gotten out of bed. Even in the poor resolution, the golden lily tattoo on her cheekgleamed. All Alchemists had that same tattoo. It consisted of ink and Moroi blood, impartingMoroi good health and longevity to the wearer. It also had a bit of compulsion mixed in to keepthe Alchemists secret society from revealing anything they shouldnt about vampires."Evening," I said. "Not morning.""We can argue your messed-up unholy schedule some other time," she said. "Thats not what Imhere for.""What are you here for?" I asked, still astonished to see her. The Alchemists did their jobs almostreluctantly, and while Sydney liked me better than most Moroi or dhampirs, she wasnt the typeto make friendly phone (or video) calls. "Wait... you cant be in Russia. Not if its morning..." Itried to remember the time change. Yes, for humans over there, the sun would be down or aboutto be right now."Im back in my native country," she said with mock grandeur. "Got a new post in New Orleans.""Whoa, nice." Sydney had hated being assigned to Russia, but my impression had been she wasstuck there until finishing her Alchemist internship. "Howd you manage that?"Her small smile turned to an expression of discomfort. "Oh, well. Abe, um, kind of did me afavor. He made it happen.""You made a deal with him?" Sydney must have really hated Russia. And Abes influence musthave really been deep if he could affect a human organization. "What did you give him in return?Your soul?" Making a joke like that to someone as religious as her wasnt very appropriate. Ofcourse, I think she thought Moroi and dhampirs ate souls, so maybe my comment wasnt too outthere.
  • "Thats the thing," she said. "It was kind of an Ill let you know when I need a favor in the futurearrangement.""Sucker," I said."Hey," she snapped. "I dont have to be doing this. Im actually doing you a favor by talking toyou.""Why are you talking to me exactly?" I wanted to question her more about her open-ended dealwith the devil but figured that would get me disconnected.She sighed and brushed some hair out of her face. "I need to ask you something. And I swear Iwont tell on you... I just need to know the truth so that we dont waste our time on something.""Okay..." Please dont ask me about Victor, I prayed."Have you broken into any place lately?"Damn. I kept my face perfectly neutral. "What do you mean?""The Alchemists had some records stolen recently," she explained. She was all business-seriousnow. "And everyones going crazy trying to figure out who did it--and why."Mentally, I breathed a sigh of relief. Okay. It wasnt about Tarasov. Thank God there was onecrime I wasnt guilty of. Then the full meaning of her words hit me. I glared.
  • "Wait. You guys get robbed, and Im the one you suspect? I thought I was off your list of evilcreatures?""No dhampir is off my list of evil creatures," she said. That half smile of hers had returned, but Icouldnt tell if she was joking or not. It faded quickly, showing what a big deal this was for her."And believe me, if anyone could break into our records, you could. Its not easy. Practicallyimpossible.""Um, thank you?" I wasnt sure if I should feel flattered or not."Of course," she continued scornfully, "they only stole paper records, which was stupid.Everythings backed up digitally nowadays, so Im not sure why theyd go digging throughdinosaur filing cabinets."I could give her a lot of reasons why someone would do that, but finding out why I was hernumber-one suspect was more important. "That is stupid. So why do you think Id do it?""Because of what was stolen. It was information about a Moroi named Eric Dragomir.""I--what?""Thats your friend, right? His daughter, I mean.""Yeah..." I was almost speechless. Almost. "You have files on Moroi?""We have files on everything," she said proudly. "But when I tried to think who could commit acrime like this and would be interested in a Dragomir... well, your name popped into my head."
  • "I didnt do it. I do a lot of things, but not that. I didnt even know you had those kinds ofrecords."Sydney regarded me suspiciously."Its the truth!""Like I said before," she told me, "I wont turn you in. Seriously. I just want to know so that I canget people to stop wasting time on certain leads." Her smugness sobered. "And, well, if you diddo it... I need to keep the attention off you. I promised Abe.""Whatever it takes for you to believe me, I didnt do it! But now I want to know who did. Whatdid they steal? Everything on him?"She bit her lip. Owing Abe a favor might mean shed go behind her own peoples backs, but sheapparently had limits on how much shed betray."Come on! If youve got digital backup, you have to know what was taken. This is Lissa weretalking about." An idea came to me. "Could you send me copies?""No," she said swiftly. "Absolutely not.""Then please... just a hint of what they were about! Lissas my best friend. I cant let anythinghappen to her."I fully braced myself for rejection. Sydney didnt seem very personable. Did she have friends?Could she understand what I felt?
  • "Mostly bio stuff," she said at last. "Some of his history and observations wed made.""Observ--" I let it go, deciding I really didnt want to know more than I had to about Alchemistsspying on us. "Anything else?""Financial records." She frowned. "Particularly about some large deposits he made to a bankaccount in Las Vegas. Deposits he went out of his way to cover up.""Las Vegas? I was just there...." Not that it was relevant."I know," she said. "I saw some Witching Hour security tapes of your adventure. The fact thatyoud run off like that is part of why I suspected you. It seemed in character." She hesitated. "Theguy with you... the tall Moroi with dark hair... is that your boyfriend?""Er, yeah."It took a long time and great effort for her to concede the next statement. "Hes cute.""For an evil creature of the night?""Of course." She hesitated again. "Is it true you guys went there to elope?""What? No! These stories get to you guys too?" I shook my head, almost laughing at howridiculous this all was, but knowing I needed to get back to the facts. "So, Eric had an account inVegas he was moving money into?""It wasnt his. It was some womans."
  • "What woman?""No one--well, no one we can track. She was just down as Jane Doe.""Original," I muttered. "Why would he be doing that?""That we dont know. Or really care about. We just want to know who broke in and stole ourstuff.""The only thing I know about that is that it wasnt me." Seeing her scrutinizing look, I threw upmy hands. "Come on! If I wanted to know about him, Id just ask Lissa. Or steal our ownrecords."Several moments of silence passed."Okay. I believe you," she said."Really?""Do you want me to not believe you?""No, it was just easier than I thought convincing you."She sighed.
  • "I want to know more about these records," I said fiercely. "I want to know who Jane Doe is. Ifyou could get me other files--"Sydney shook her head. "Nope. This is where I cut you off. You know too much already. Abewanted me to keep you out of trouble, and Ive done that. Ive done my part.""I dont think Abes going to let you go so easily. Not if you made an open-ended deal."She didnt acknowledge that, but the look in her brown eyes made me think she agreed. "Goodnight, Rose. Morning. Whatever.""Wait, I--"The screen went black."Damn," I growled, shutting the laptop more forcefully than I should have.Every part of that conversation had been a shock, starting with Sydney and ending with someonestealing Alchemist records about Lissas father. Why would anyone care about a dead man? Andwhy steal the records at all? To learn something?Or to try to hide information? If that last onewas true, then Sydney was right that it had been a failed effort.I replayed it all in my head as I got ready for bed, staring at my reflection while brushing myteeth. Why, why, why? Why do it? And who? I needed no more intrigue in my life, but anythinginvolving Lissa had to be treated seriously. Unfortunately, it soon became clear I wouldnt figureout anything tonight, and I fell asleep with all those questions spinning around in my head.I woke up the next morning feeling a little less overwhelmed--but still short on answers. Idebated whether or not to tell Lissa about what Id learned and finally decided I should. If
  • someone was gathering information on her father, she had a right to know, and besides, this washardly the same as rumors about his--A thought startled me in the middle of scrubbing shampoo into my hair. Id been too tired andsurprised to string together the pieces last night. That guy at the Witching Hour had said Lissasdad was there a lot. Now Sydneys records reported that hed made large deposits into an accountin Las Vegas. Coincidence?Maybe. But as time went on, I was starting not to believe incoincidences anymore.Once presentable, I set out toward Lissas side of Court--but didnt get very far. Adrian waswaiting for me down in my buildings foyer, slumped back into an armchair."Its early for you, isnt it?" I teased, coming to a stop in front of him.I expected a smile in return, but Adrian didnt look particularly cheerful this morning. In fact, heappeared kind of bedraggled. His hair lacked its usual styling care, and his clothing--unusuallydressy for this time of day--was wrinkled. The scent of clove cigarettes hung around him."Easy to be early when you dont get much sleep," he responded. "I was up a lot of the nightwaiting for someone.""Waiting for--oh.God."The party. Id totally forgotten the party his mother had invited me to.Abe and Sydney had distracted me. "Adrian, Im so sorry."He shrugged and didnt touch me when I sat down on the arm of his chair. "Whatever. I probablyshouldnt be surprised anymore. Im starting to realize Ive been deluding myself.""No, no. I was going to go, but then you wont believe what--"
  • "Save it. Please." His voice was weary, his eyes bloodshot. "Its not necessary. My mom told meshe saw you over at Dimitris questioning."I frowned. "But thats not why I missed the party. There was this guy--""Thats not the point, Rose. The point is that you managed to make time for that--and a visit tohis cell, if what I heard is true. Yet, you couldnt bother showing up at something you said youddo with me--or even send a message. That was all you had to do: say you couldnt go. I waitedover an hour for you at my parents house before giving up."I started to say he could have tried to contact me, but honestly, why should he have? It wasnt hisresponsibility. I was the one whod told Daniella Id meet him there. It was my fault for notshowing up."Adrian, Im sorry." I clasped his hand, but he didnt squeeze back. "Really, I meant to, but--""No," he interrupted again. "Ever since Dimitri came back... no, scratch that. Ever since youbecame obsessed with changing him, youve been torn over me. No matter whats happenedbetween us, youve never really given yourself over to our relationship. I wanted to believe whatyou told me. I thought you were ready... but you werent."Protests rose to my lips, but once more, I stopped them. He was right. Id said Id give dating hima fair shot. Id even sunk into the comfortable role of his girlfriend, yet the whole time... thewhole time, part of me had been consumed with Dimitri. Id known it too but had kept livingsplit lives. A weird flashback to my time with Mason popped into my head. Id led the samedouble life with him, and hed died for it. I was a mess. I didnt know my own heart."Im sorry," I said again. "I really do want us to have something...." Even to me, the wordssounded so lame. Adrian gave me a knowing smile.
  • "I dont believe that. Neither do you." He stood up and ran his hand over his hair, not that it didany good. "If you really want to be with me, then youve got to mean it this time."I hated seeing him so grim. I especially hated being the reason. I followed him to the door."Adrian, wait. Lets talk more.""Not now, little dhampir. I need some sleep. I just cant handle playing this game right now."I could have gone after him. I could have tackled him to the ground. But it wouldnt have beenworth it... because I had no answers to give him. Hed been right about everything, and until Icould make up my own confused mind, I had no right to force a talk. Besides, considering thestate he was in, I doubted any further conversation would have been productive.Yet as he started to step outside, I couldnt help my next words. "Before you go--and Iunderstand why you have to--theres something Ive got to ask you. Something thats not aboutus. It affects--it affects Lissa."This slowly brought him to a halt. "Always a favor." With a world-weary sigh, he glanced at meover his shoulder. "Make it fast.""Someone broke into the Alchemists records and stole information about Lissas dad. Some of itwas ordinary life history stuff, but there were some documents about him making secret depositsinto a bank account in Las Vegas. Some womans bank account."Adrian waited a few moments. "And?""And Im trying to figure out why someone would do that. I dont want anyone snooping aroundher family. Do you have any idea what her dad would have been doing?"
  • "You heard the guy at the casino. Her dad was there a lot. Maybe he had gambling debts and waspaying off a loan shark.""Lissas familys always had money," I pointed out. "He couldnt have gotten into that much debt.And why would anyone care enough to steal that info?"Adrian threw up his hands. "I dont know. Thats all Ive got, at least this early in the morning. Idont have the brain power for intrigue. I cant really picture any of that being a threat to Lissa,though."I nodded, disappointed. "Okay. Thanks."He continued on his way, and I watched him go. Lissa lived near him, but I didnt want him tothink I was following him. When hed put enough distance between us, I stepped outdoors aswell and started to head in the same direction. The faint sound of bells brought me to a halt. Ihesitated, suddenly unsure where to go.I wanted to talk to Lissa and tell her what Sydney had told me. Lissa was alone for a change; thiswas the perfect opportunity. And yet... the bells. It was Sunday morning. Mass was about to startat the Courts church. I had a hunch about something, and in spite of everything that hadhappened--including with Adrian--I had to see if I was right.So I sprinted off toward the church, going in the opposite direction of Lissas building. The doorswere shut when I reached my destination, but a few other latecomers were trying to quietly slipin. I entered with them, pausing to get my bearings. Clouds of incense hung in the air, and myeyes took a moment to adjust from sunlight to candlelight. Since this church dwarfed St.Vladimirs chapel, it was packed with a lot more people than I was used to seeing at mass. Mostof the seats were full.But not all of them.
  • My hunch had been right. Dimitri sat in one of the back pews. A few guardians sat near him, ofcourse, but that was it. Even in a crowded church, no one else had joined him on the bench.Reece had asked Dimitri if hed step inside the church yesterday, and Dimitri had gone one stepfurther, saying hed even go to Sunday services.The priest had already begun to speak, so I moved down Dimitris pew as quietly as I could.Silence didnt matter, though, because I still attracted a fair amount of attention from nearbypeople who were astonished to see me sitting next to the Strigoi-turned-dhampir. Eyes stared andseveral hushed conversations broke out.The guardians had left some space near Dimitri, and when I sat beside him, the look on his faceshowed he was both surprised and not surprised by this."Dont," he said in a hushed voice. "Dont start--not in here.""Wouldnt dream of it, comrade," I murmured back. "Just came for the good of my soul, thatsall."He didnt need to say a word to convey to me that he doubted I was here for any holy reasons. Istayed quiet throughout the service, though. Even I respected some boundaries. After severalminutes, the tension in Dimitris body eased a little. Hed grown wary when I joined him but musthave eventually decided Id be on good behavior. His attention shifted off of me and focused onthe singing and the praying, and I did my best to watch him without being obvious.Dimitri used to go to the schools chapel because it brought him peace. He had always said thateven though the killing he did destroyed evil in the world, he still felt the need to come thinkabout his life and seek forgiveness for his sins. Seeing him now, I realized that was truer thanever.His expression was exquisite. I was so used to seeing him hide emotions that it was a bit startlingfor him to suddenly have a host of them on his face. He was absorbed in the priests words, hisgorgeous face completely focused. And I realized he was taking everything the priest was saying
  • about sin personally. Dimitri was replaying all the awful things hed done as a Strigoi. From thedespair on his face, youd think that Dimitri himself was responsible for all the sins of the worldthe priest spoke of.For a moment, I thought I saw hope on Dimitris face too, just a spark of it mixed in with hisguilt and sorrow. No, I realized. Not hope. Hope implies that you think you have a chance atsomething. What I saw in Dimitri was longing. Wistfulness. Dimitri wished that by being here inthis holy place and listening to the messages conveyed, he might find redemption for what hehad done. Yet... at the same time, it was clear he didnt believe that was possible. He wanted itbut could never have it as far as he was concerned.Seeing that in him hurt me. I didnt know how to react to that kind of bleak attitude. He thoughtthere was no hope for him. Me? I couldnt imagine a world without hope.I also never would have imagined Id quote back a church lesson, but when the rest of the crowdstood up to take communion, I found myself saying to Dimitri: "Dont you think that if God cansupposedly forgive you, its kind of egotistical for you not to forgive yourself?""How long have you been waiting to use that line on me?" he asked."Actually, it just came to me. Pretty good, huh? I bet you thought I wasnt paying attention.""You werent. You never do. You were watching me."Interesting. To know that I was watching him, would Dimitri have had to have watched mewatching him? It boggled the mind. "You didnt answer my question."He kept his eyes on the communion line while composing his answer. "Its irrelevant. I donthave to forgive myself even if God does. And Im not sure He would."
  • "That priest just said God would. He said God forgives everything. Are you calling the priest aliar? Thats pretty sacrilegious."Dimitri groaned. I never thought Id take joy in tormenting him, but the frustrated look on hisface wasnt because of his personal grief. It was because of me being impertinent. Id seen thisexpression a hundred times on him, and the familiarity of it warmed me, as crazy as that sounds."Rose, youre the one being sacrilegious. Youre twisting these peoples faith for your ownpurposes. Youve never believed in any of this. You still dont.""I believe that the dead can come back to life," I said seriously. "The proof is sitting right next tome. If thats true, then I think you forgiving yourself isnt that much more of a leap."His gaze hardened, and if he was praying for anything right then, it was that the communionprocess would speed up so that he could get out of here and away from me. We both knew hehad to wait this church service out. If he ran out, it would make him look Strigoi."You dont know what youre talking about," he said."Dont I?" I hissed, leaning closer. I did it to drive home my point, but all it did (for me, at least)was give me a better view of the way the candlelight shone on his hair and how long and lean hisbody was. Someone had apparently decided he could be trusted to shave, and his face wassmooth, showing its wonderful, perfect lines."I know exactly what Im talking about," I continued, trying to ignore how his presence affectedme. "I know that youve been through a lot. I know that you did terrible things--I saw them. Butits in the past. It was beyond your control. Its not like youre going to do it again."A strange, haunted look crossed his face. "How do you know? Maybe the monster didnt leave.Maybe theres still something Strigoi lurking in me."
  • "Then you need to defeat it by moving on with your life! And not just through your chivalrouspledge to protect Lissa. You need to live again. You need to open yourself up to people who loveyou. No Strigoi would do that. Thats how youll save yourself.""I cant have people loving me," he growled. "Im incapable of loving anyone in return.""Maybe you should try instead of just feeling sorry for yourself!""Its not that easy.""Da--" I just barely stopped myself from swearing in a church. "Nothing weve ever done hasbeen easy! Our life before--before the attack wasnt easy, and we made it through that! We canmake it through this too. We can make it through anything together. It doesnt matter if you putyour faith in this place. I dont care. What matters is that you put your faith in us.""There is no us. Ive already told you that.""And you know Im not a very good listener."We were keeping our voices low, but I think our body language clearly indicated an argument.The other churchgoers were too distracted to notice, but Dimitris guardians were regarding uscarefully. Again, I reminded myself about what Lissa and Mikhail had both said. Getting Dimitriangry in public was not going to do him any favors. The problem was, I had yet to say anythingthat didnt make him angry."I wish you hadnt come here," he said at last. "Its really better for us to stay apart."
  • "Thats funny because I could have sworn you once said we were meant to be together.""I want you to stay away from me," he said, ignoring my comment. "I dont want you to keeptrying to bring back feelings that are gone. Thats the past. None of thats going to happen again.Not ever. Its better for us if we act like strangers. Its better for you."The loving, compassionate feelings he had stirred within me heated up--to fury. "If youre goingto tell me what I can or cant do," I growled in as low a tone as I could manage, "then at leasthave the courage to say it to my face!"He spun around so quickly that he might have indeed still been Strigoi. His face was filled with...what? Not that earlier depression. Not rage either, though there was a bit of anger. There wasmore, though... a mingling of desperation, frustration, and maybe even fear. Underscoring all ofit was pain, like he suffered from terrible, exquisite agony."I dont want you here," he said, eyes blazing. The words hurt, but something about it all thrilledme, just as his earlier agitation at my flippant comments had. This wasnt the cold and calculatingStrigoi. This wasnt the defeated man in the cell. This was my old instructor, my lover, whoattacked everything in life with intensity and passion. "How many times do I have to tell youthat? You need to stay away from me.""But you arent going to hurt me. I know that.""Ive already hurt you. Why cant you understand that? How many times do I have to say it?""You told me... you told me before you left that you loved me." My voice trembled. "How canyou let that go?""Because its too late! And its easier than being reminded of what I did to you!" His controlsnapped, his voice echoing through the back of the church. The priest and those still taking
  • communion didnt notice, but wed definitely gotten the attention of those in the back half of thechurch. A few of the guardians stiffened, and again, I had to repeat the warning to myself. Nomatter how furious I was at Dimitri, no matter how betrayed I felt that hed turned away fromme... I could not risk others thinking he was dangerous. Dimitri hardly looked like he was goingto snap someones neck, but he was clearly upset, and one might confuse his frustration and painfor something more sinister.I turned from him, trying to calm my churning emotions. When I looked back, our eyes locked,power and electricity burning between us. Dimitri could ignore it all he wanted, but thatconnection--that deep calling of our souls--was still in there. I wanted to touch him, not just withthis brushing of my leg but with everything. I wanted to wrap him in my arms and hold himagainst me, reassuring him that we could do anything together. Without even realizing it, Ireached toward him, needing that touch. He sprang up like I was a snake, and all of his guardiansshot forward, braced for what he might do.But he did nothing. Nothing except stare at me with a look that made my blood run cold. Like Iwas something strange and bad. "Rose. Please stop. Please stay away." He was working hard tostay calm.I shot up, now as angry and frustrated as him. I had a feeling if I stayed, wed both snap. In anundertone, I murmured, "This isnt over. I wont give up on you.""Ive given up on you," he said back, voice also soft. "Love fades. Mine has."I stared at him in disbelief. All this time, hed never phrased it like that. His protests had alwaysbeen about some greater good, about the remorse he felt over being a monster or how it hadscarred him from love. Ive given up on you. Love fades. Mine has.I backed up, the sting of those words hitting me as hard as if hed slapped me. Something shiftedin his features, like maybe he knew how much hed hurt me. I didnt stick around to see. Instead,I pushed my way out of the aisle and ran out the doors in the back, afraid that if I stayed anylonger, everyone in the church would see me cry.
  • Chapter Twenty-fiveI DIDNT WANT TO SEE anyone after that. I trekked back to my room as quickly as I could,hardly noticing the obstacles and people in my path. Over and over, Dimitris words played inmy head: Love fades. Mine has. Somehow, that was the worst thing he could have said. Dont getme wrong: The rest wasnt easy either. Having him tell me he was going to avoid me and ignoreour past relationship made me feel awful too. Yet, within that, no matter how much it hurt, wasthe tiny hope that there was still some spark of love between us. That he still loved me.But... love fades.That was something else altogether. It meant that what we had would die, going pale until itcrumbled and drifted away like dried up leaves in the wind. The thought of it caused a pain in mychest and stomach, and I curled up on my bed, wrapping my arms around myself as though thatmight lessen the hurt. I couldnt accept what he had said. I couldnt accept that somehow, afterhis ordeal, his love for me had gone away.I wanted to stay in my room for the rest of the day, curled up in the darkness of my covers. Iforgot about Sydneys conversation and my earlier concerns about Lissas dad. I even let go ofLissa herself. She had a few errands today, but every so often, a message would flit to methrough the bond: Come join me?When I didnt contact her, she began to grow worried. I was suddenly afraid that she--orsomeone else--might come seeking me in my room. So I decided to leave. I had no realdestination; I just had to keep moving. I walked around the Court, scouting places Id never seenbefore. It was filled with more statues and fountains than Id realized. Their beauty was lost onme, though, and when I returned to my room hours later, I was exhausted from all the walking.Oh well. At least Id dodged having to talk to anyone.Or had I? It was late, past my usual bedtime, when a knock came at my door. I was hesitant toanswer. Who would be coming by so late? Did I want the distraction or did I want to keep mysolitude? I had no idea who it could be, save that it wasnt Lissa. God. For all I knew, it wasHans, demanding to know why I hadnt been showing up for my work detail. After muchthinking (and more persistent knocking), I decided to open it.
  • It was Adrian."Little dhampir," he said with a small, weary smile. "You look like youve seen a ghost."Not a ghost, exactly. Believe me, I knew ghosts when I saw them. "I just... I just didnt reallyexpect to see you after this morning...."He entered and sat down on my bed, and I was glad to see hed cleaned up since our earlier talk.He wore fresh clothes, and his hair was back to its normal perfection. I still caught the lingeringscent of cloves, but after what Id put him through, he was entitled to his vices."Yeah, well, I didnt expect to come by either," he admitted. "But you... well... you got methinking about something."I sat down beside him, keeping a healthy distance. "Us?""No. Lissa.""Oh." Id accused Dimitri of being egotistic, but here I was, naturally assuming love for me wasall that could have driven Adrian over.His green eyes turned speculative. "I kept thinking about what youd said, about her dad. Andyou were right--right about the gambling thing. Hed have the money to pay off any debt. Hewouldnt have had to keep it a secret. So I went and asked my mom.""What?" I exclaimed. "No ones supposed to know that--"
  • "Yeah, yeah, I figured your information had been top secret. Dont worry. I told her that when wewere in Vegas, we heard some people talking about it--about Lissas dad making secret deposits.""Whatd she say?""The same thing I did. Well, actually, she snapped at me first. She said Eric Dragomir was agood man and that I shouldnt spread rumors about the dead. She suggested that maybe he had agambling problem, but if so, people shouldnt focus on that, when he did so many great things.After the Death Watch, I think shes afraid of me causing more public scenes.""Shes right. About Eric," I said. Maybe someone had stolen those records as some part of aslander campaign. Admittedly, spreading rumors about the dead was pointless, but maybesomeone wanted to blacken the Dragomir reputation and get rid of any chance of the voting lawbeing changed for Lissa? I was about to say as much to Adrian when he interrupted withsomething even more shocking."And then my dad overheard us, and he was like, He was probably funding some mistress.Youre right--he was a nice guy. But he liked to flirt. And he liked the ladies." Adrian rolled hiseyes. "Thats a direct quote: He liked the ladies. My dad is such an ass. He sounds twice hisage."I gripped Adrians arm without realizing it. "What did he say after that?"Adrian shrugged but left my hand where it was. "Nothing. My mom got mad and said the samething to him that she said to me, that it was cruel to spread stories no one could prove.""Do you think its true? Do you think Lissas dad had a mistress? Was that what he was payingout for?"
  • "Dont know, little dhampir. Honestly? My dads the type who would jump on any rumor hecould. Or make one up. I mean, we know Lissas dad liked to party. Its easy to jump toconclusions from there. Probably he had some dirty secret. Hell, we all do. Maybe whoever stolethose files just wanted to exploit that."I told him my theory about it being used against Lissa. "Or," I said, reconsidering, "maybesomeone who supports her took it. So that it wouldnt get out."Adrian nodded. "Either way, I dont think Lissas in mortal danger."He started to rise, and I pulled him back. "Adrian, wait... I..." I swallowed. "I wanted toapologize. The way Ive been treating you, what Ive been doing... it wasnt fair to you. Imsorry."He looked away from me, eyes focused on the ground. "You cant help the way you feel.""The thing is... I dont know how I feel. And that sounds stupid, but its the truth. I care aboutDimitri. I was stupid to think Id be unaffected by him being back. But I realize now..." Lovefades. Mine has. "I realize now that its over with him. Im not saying thats easy to get past. Itlltake a while, and Id be lying to both of us if I said it wouldnt.""That makes sense," Adrian said."It does?"He glanced at me, a flicker of amusement in his eyes. "Yes, little dhampir. Sometimes you makesense. Go on."
  • "I... well, like I said... Ive got to heal from him. But I do care about you.... I think I even loveyou a little." That got a small smile. "I want to try again. I really do. I like having you in my life,but I may have jumped into things too soon before. You dont have any reason to want me afterthe way Ive dragged you around, but if you want to get together again, then I want to."He studied me for a long time, and my breath caught. Id meant what I said: He had every right toend things with us... and yet, the thought that he might terrified me.At last, he pulled me against him and lay back against the bed. "Rose, I have all sorts of reasonsto want you. I havent been able to stay away from you since I saw you at the ski lodge."I shifted closer to Adrian on the bed and pressed my head against his chest. "We can make thiswork. I know we can. If I screw up again, you can leave.""If only it were that easy," he laughed. "You forget: I have an addictive personality. Im addictedto you. Somehow I think you could do all sorts of bad things to me, and Id still come back toyou. Just keep things honest, okay? Tell me what youre feeling. If youre feeling something forDimitri thats confusing you, tell me. Well work it out."I wanted to tell him that--regardless of my feelings--he had nothing to worry about with Dimitribecause Dimitri had rejected me a number of times now. I could chase after Dimitri all I wanted,and it wouldnt do any good. Love fades. Those words still stung, and I couldnt bear to givevoice to that pain. But as Adrian held me and I thought about how understanding he was aboutall of this, some wounded part of me acknowledged that the opposite was true as well: Lovegrows. I would try with him. I really would.I sighed. "Youre not supposed to be this wise. Youre supposed to be shallow and unreasonableand... and..."He pressed a kiss to my forehead. "And?"
  • "Mmm... ridiculous.""Ridiculous I can manage. And the others... but only on special occasions."We were wrapped close together now, and I tilted my head to study him, the high cheekbonesand artfully messy hair that made him so gorgeous. I remembered his mothers words, thatregardless of what we wanted, he and I would eventually have to part ways. Maybe this was howmy life was going to be. Id always lose the men I loved.I pulled him hard against me, kissing his mouth with a force that caught even him by surprise. IfI had learned anything about life and love, it was that they were tenuous things that could end atany moment. Caution was essential--but not at the cost of wasting your life. I decided I wasntgoing to waste it now.My hands were already tugging at Adrians shirt before that thought was fully formed. He didntquestion it or hesitate in taking my clothes off in return. He might have moments ofprofoundness and understanding, but he was still... well, Adrian. Adrian lived his life in the now,doing the things he wanted without much second-guessing. And he had wanted me for a verylong time.He was also very good at this sort of thing, which was why my clothes came off faster than his.His lips were hot and eager against my throat, but he was careful to never once let his fangsbrush my skin. I was a little less gentle, surprising myself when I dug my nails into the bare skinof his back. His lips moved lower, tracing the line of my collarbone while he deftly took off mybra one-handed.I was a little astonished at my bodys reaction as we both fought to get the others jeans off first.Id convinced myself that Id never want sex again after Dimitri, but right now? Oh, I wanted it.Maybe it was some psychological reaction to Dimitris rejection. Maybe it was an impulse to livefor the moment. Maybe it was love for Adrian. Or maybe it was just lust.
  • Whatever it was, it made me powerless beneath his hands and mouth, which seemed intent onexploring every part of me. The only time he paused was when all my clothes were finally offand I lay there naked with him. He was almost naked too, but I hadnt quite gotten to his boxersyet. (They were silk because, honestly, what else would Adrian wear?). He cupped my face in hishands, his eyes filled with intensity and desire--and a bit of wonder."What are you, Rose Hathaway? Are you real? Youre a dream within a dream. Im afraidtouching you will make me wake up. Youll disappear." I recognized a little of the poetic trancehe sometimes fell into, the spells that made me wonder if he was catching a little of the spirit-induced madness."Touch me and find out," I said, drawing him to me.He didnt hesitate again. The last of his clothes came off, and my whole body heated at the feel ofhis skin and the way his hands slid over me. My physical needs were rapidly trampling over anylogic and reason. There was no thought, just us, and the fierce urgency bringing us together. Iwas all burning need and desire and sensation and--"Oh, shit."It came out as kind of a mumble since wed been kissing, our lips eagerly seeking out the others.With guardian reflexes, I barely managed to shift away, just as our hips started to come together.Losing the feel of him was shocking to me, more so for him. He was stunned, simply staring inastonishment as I wriggled further from him and finally managed a sitting position on the bed."What... whats wrong? Did you change your mind?""We need protection first," I said. "Do you have any condoms?"
  • He processed this for a few seconds and then sighed. "Rose, only you would pick this instant toremember that."That was a fair point. My timing kind of sucked. Still, it was better than remembering itafterward. In spite of my bodys rampant desire--and it was still there, believe me--I suddenlyhad a startling, vivid image of Dimitris sister Karolina. Id met her in Siberia, and shed had ababy that was about six months old. The baby was adorable, as babies often are, but by God, shehad been so much work. Karolina had a waitressing job, and as soon as she was home from that,her attention went to the baby. When she was at work, Dimitris mother took care of the baby.And the baby always needed something: food, changing, rescue from choking on a small object.His sister Sonya had been on the verge of having a baby too, and with the way Id left things withhis youngest sister, Viktoria, I wouldnt be surprised to find she was pregnant before long. Hugelife changes made from small, careless actions.So I was pretty confident I didnt want a baby in my life right now, not this young. With Dimitri,it hadnt been a concern, thanks to dhampir infertility. With Adrian? It was an issue, as was thefact that while disease was rare among both our races, I wasnt the first girl Adrian had beenwith. Or the second.Or the third..."So do you have any?" I asked impatiently. Just because I was in responsible mode, it didntmean I wanted sex any less."Yes," said Adrian, sitting up as well. "Back in my bedroom."We stared at each other. His bedroom was far away, over in the Moroi section of Court.He slid nearer, putting his arm around me and nibbling my earlobe. "The odds of anything badhappening are pretty low."I closed my eyes and tipped my head back against him. He wrapped his hands around my hipsand stroked my skin. "What are you, a doctor?" I asked.
  • He laughed softly, his mouth kissing the spot just behind my ear. "No. Im just someone willingto take a risk. You cant tell me you dont want this."I opened my eyes and pulled away so that I could look at him directly. He was right. I did wantthis. Very, very badly. And the part of me--which was pretty much all of me--that burned withlust was attempting to win me over. The odds probably were low, right? Werent there peoplewho tried forever to get pregnant and couldnt? My desire had an okay argument, so it was kindof a surprise when my logic won."I cant take the risk," I said.Now Adrian studied me, and at last, he nodded. "Okay. Another time then. Tonight well be...responsible.""Thats all youre going to say?"He frowned. "What else would I say? You said no.""But you... you could have compelled me."Now he was really astonished. "Do you want me to compel you?""No. Of course not. It just occurred to me that... well, that you could have."Adrian cupped my face in his hands. "Rose, I cheat at cards and buy liquor for minors. But Iwould never, ever force you into something you dont want. Certainly not this--"
  • His words were cut off because Id pressed myself against him and started kissing him again.Surprise must have kept him from doing anything right away, but soon, he pushed me away withwhat seemed like great reluctance."Little dhampir," he said dryly, "if you want to be responsible, this is not a good way to do it.""We dont have to let this go. And we can be responsible.""All of those stories are--"He came screeching to a halt when I tossed my hair out of the way and offered my neck to him. Imanaged to turn slightly so that I could meet his eyes, but I said nothing. I didnt have to. Theinvitation was obvious."Rose..." he said uncertainly--though I could see the longing spring up in his face.Drinking blood wasnt the same as sex, but it was a yearning all vampires had, and doing it whilearoused--so Id heard--was a mind-blowing experience. It was also taboo and hardly ever done,so people claimed. It was where the definition of blood whore had originated: dhampirs whogave their blood during sex. The idea of dhampirs yielding blood at all was considereddisgraceful, but Id done it before: with Lissa when she needed food and with Dimitri when hedbeen Strigoi. And it had been glorious.He tried again, his voice steadier this time. "Rose, do you know what youre asking?""Yes," I said firmly. I gently ran a finger along his lips and then slipped in to touch his fangs. Ithrew his own words back at him. "You cant tell me you dont want this."
  • He did want it. In a heartbeat, his mouth was at my neck and his fangs were piercing my skin. Icried out at the sudden pain, a sound that softened to a moan as the endorphins that came withevery vampire bite flooded into me. An exquisite bliss consumed me. He pulled me hard againsthim as he drank, almost onto his lap, pressing my back against his chest. I was distantly aware ofhis hands all over me again, of his lips upon my throat. Mostly, all I knew was that I wasdrowning in pure, ecstatic sweetness. The perfect high.When he pulled away, it was like losing part of myself. Like being incomplete. Confused,needing him back, I reached for him. He gently pushed my hand away, smiling as he licked hislips."Careful, little dhampir. I went longer than I should have. You could probably grow wings andfly off right now."It actually didnt sound like a bad idea. In a few more moments, though, the intense, crazy part ofthe high faded, and I settled back to myself. I still felt wonderful and dizzy; the endorphins hadfed my bodys desire. My reasoning slowly came back to me, allowing (kind of) coherent thoughtto penetrate that happy haze. When Adrian was convinced I was sober enough, he relaxed andlay down on the bed. I joined him a moment later, curling up against his side. He seemed ascontent as I was."That," he mused, "was the best not-sex ever."My only response was a sleepy smile. It was late, and the more I crashed down from theendorphin rush, the drowsier I felt. Some tiny part of me said that even though Id wanted thisand cared about Adrian, the whole act had been wrong. I hadnt done it for the right reasons,instead letting myself get carried away by my own grief and confusion.The rest of me decided that wasnt true, and the nagging voice soon faded into exhaustion. I fellasleep against Adrian, getting the best night of sleep Id had in a long time.
  • I wasnt entirely surprised that I was able to get out of bed, shower, get dressed, and even blow-dry my hair without Adrian waking up. My friends and I had spent many a morning trying todrag him out of bed in the past. Hungover or sober, he was a heavy sleeper.I spent more time on my hair than I had in a while. The telltale mark of a vampire bite was freshon my neck. So I wore my hair down, careful to style it with a part so that the long waves hungheavy on the bite side. Satisfied the bruise would stay camouflaged, I pondered what to do next.In an hour or so, the Council was going to listen to arguments from factions with varying ideason the new age decree, Moroi fighting, and the Dragomir vote. Provided they let me in the hall, Ihad no intention of missing the debates on the hottest issues in our world right now.I didnt want to wake up Adrian, though. He was tangled up in my sheets and slept peacefully. IfI woke him up, Id feel obligated to stick around while he got ready. Through the bond, I feltLissa sitting alone at a cafe table. I wanted to see her and have breakfast, so I decided Adriancould fend for himself. I left him a note about where I was, told him the door would lock on hisway out, and drew lots of xs and os.When I was halfway to the cafe, though, I sensed something that ruined my breakfast plan.Christian had sat down with Lissa."Well, well," I muttered. With everything else going on, I hadnt paid much attention to Lissaspersonal life. After what had happened at the warehouse, I wasnt entirely surprised to see themtogether, though her feelings told me there had been no romantic reconciliation... yet. This wasan uneasy attempt at friendship, a chance to get over their constant jealousy and distrust.Far be it from me to intrude on love at work. I knew another place near the guardians buildingsthat also had coffee and doughnuts. It would do, provided no one there remembered that I wastechnically still on probation and had made a scene in a royal hall.The odds on that probably werent good.
  • Still, I decided to give it a try and headed over, eyeing the overcast sky uneasily. Rain wouldnthelp my mood any. When I got to the cafe, I discovered I didnt have to worry about anyonepaying attention to me. There was a bigger draw: Dimitri.He was out with his personal guard, and even though I was glad he had some freedom, theattitude that he needed close watching still angered me. At least there was no giant crowd today.People who came in for breakfast couldnt help but stare, but few lingered. He had five guardianswith him this time, which was a significant reduction. That was a good sign. He sat alone at atable, coffee and a half-eaten glazed doughnut in front of him. He was reading a paperback novelthat I would have bet my life was a Western.No one sat with him. His escort simply maintained a ring of protection, a couple near the walls,one at the entrance, and two at nearby tables. The security seemed pointless. Dimitri wascompletely engrossed in his book, oblivious to the guards and occasional spectators--or he wassimply making a good show of not caring. He seemed very harmless, but Adrians words cameback to me. Was there any Strigoi left in him? Some dark part? Dimitri himself claimed he stillcarried the piece that prevented him from ever truly loving anyone.He and I had always had this uncanny awareness of each other. In a crowded room, I couldalways find him. And in spite of his preoccupation with the book, he looked up when I walkedtoward the cafes counter. Our eyes met for a millisecond. There was no expression on his face...and yet, I had the feeling he was waiting for something.Me, I realized with a start. Despite everything, despite our fight in the church... he still thought Iwould pursue and make some pledge of my love. Why? Did he just expect me to be thatunreasonable? Or was it possible... was it possible he wanted me to approach him?Well, whatever the reason, I decided I wouldnt give it to him. Hed hurt me too many timesalready. Hed told me to stay away, and if that was all part of some elaborate game to toy withmy feelings, I wasnt going to play. I gave him a haughty look and turned away sharply as Iwalked up to the counter. I ordered chai and a chocolate eclair. After a moments consideration, Iordered a second eclair. I had a feeling it was going to be one of those days.
  • My plan had been to eat outside, but as I glanced toward the tinted windows, I could just barelymake out the pattern of raindrops hitting the panes. Damn. I briefly considered fighting theweather and going somewhere else with my food, but I decided I wasnt going to let Dimitriscare me off. Spying a table far from him, I headed toward it, going out of my way not to look ator acknowledge him."Hey Rose. Are you going to the Council today?"I came to a halt. One of Dimitris guardians had spoken, giving me a friendly smile as he did. Icouldnt recall the guys name, but hed seemed nice whenever we passed each other. I didntwant to be rude, and so, reluctantly, I answered back--even though it meant staying near Dimitri."Yup," I said, making sure my attention was only on the guardian. "Just grabbing a bite before Ido.""Are they going to let you in?" asked another of the guardians. He too was smiling. For amoment, I thought they were mocking my last outburst. But no...that wasnt it. Their facesshowed approval."Thats an excellent question," I admitted. I took a bite of my eclair. "But I figure I should give ita try. Ill also try to be on good behavior."The first guardian chuckled. "I certainly hope not. That group deserves all the grief you can givethem over that stupid age law." The other guardians nodded."What age law?" asked Dimitri.Reluctantly, I looked over at him. As always, he swept my breath away. Stop it, Rose, I scoldedmyself. Youre mad at him, remember? And now youve chosen Adrian.
  • "The decree where royals think sending sixteen-year-old dhampirs out to fight Strigoi is the sameas sending eighteen-year-olds," I said. I took another bite.Dimitris head shot up so quickly, I nearly choked on my food. "Which sixteen-year-olds arefighting Strigoi?" His guardians tensed but did nothing else.It took me a moment to get the bite of eclair down. When I could finally speak, I was almostafraid to. "Thats the decree. Dhampirs graduate when theyre sixteen now.""When did this happen?" he demanded."Just the other day. No one told you?" I glanced over at the other guardians. One of themshrugged. I had the impression that they might believe Dimitri was truly a dhampir but that theywerent ready to get chatty with him. His only other social contact would have been Lissa and hisinterrogators."No." Dimitris brow furrowed as he pondered the news.I ate my eclair in silence, hoping it would push him to talk more. It did."Thats insane," he said. "Morality aside, they arent ready that young. Its suicide.""I know. Tasha gave a really good argument against it. I did too."Dimitri gave me a suspicious look at that last part, particularly when a couple of his guardianssmiled.
  • "Was it a close vote?" he asked. He spoke to me interrogation style, in the serious and focusedway that had so defined him as a guardian. It was a lot better than depression, I decided. It wasalso better than him telling me to go away."Very close. If Lissa could have voted, it wouldnt have passed.""Ah," he said, playing with the edges of his coffee cup. "The quorum.""You know about that?" I asked in surprise."Its an old Moroi law.""So I hear.""Whats the opposition trying to do? Sway the Council back or get Lissa the Dragomir vote?""Both. And other things."He shook his head, tucking some hair behind his ear. "They cant do that. They need to pick onecause and throw their weight behind it. Lissas the smartest choice. The Council needs theDragomirs back, and Ive seen the way people look at her when they put me on display." Onlythe slightest edge of bitterness laced his words, indicating how he felt about that. Then it wasback to business. "It wouldnt be hard to get support for that--if they dont divide their efforts."I started in on my second eclair, forgetting about my earlier resolution to ignore him. I didntwant to distract him from the topic. It was the first thing that had brought the old fire back to hiseyes, the only thing he seemed truly interested in--well, aside from pledging lifelong devotion toLissa and telling me to stay out of his life. I liked this Dimitri.
  • It was the same Dimitri from long ago, the fierce one who was willing to risk his life for whatwas right. I almost wished hed go back to being annoying, distant Dimitri, the one who told meto stay away. Seeing him now brought back too many memories--not to mention the attraction Ithought Id smashed. Now, with that passion all over him, he seemed sexier than ever. Hed wornthat same intensity when wed fought together. Even when wed had sex. This was the wayDimitri was supposed to be: powerful and in charge. I was glad and yet... seeing him the way Iloved only made my heart feel that much worse. He was lost to me.If Dimitri guessed my feelings, he didnt show it. He looked squarely at me, and, like always, thepower of that gaze wrapped around me. "The next time you see Tasha, will you send her to me?We need to talk about this.""So, Tasha can be your friend, but not me?" The sharp words were out before I could stop them.I flushed, embarrassed that Id lapsed in front of the other guardians. Dimitri apparently didntwant an audience either. He looked up at the one who had initially addressed me."Is there any way we could have some privacy?"His escort exchanged looks, and then, almost as one being, they stepped back. It wasnt aconsiderable distance, and they still maintained a ring around Dimitri. Nonetheless, it wasenough that all of our conversation wouldnt be overheard. Dimitri turned back to me. I sat down."You and Tasha have completely different situations. She can safely be in my life. You cant.""And yet," I said with an angry toss of my hair, "its apparently okay for me to be in your lifewhen its convenient--say, like, running errands or passing messages.""It doesnt really seem like you need me in your life," he noted dryly, inclining his head slightlytoward my right shoulder.
  • It took me a moment to grasp what had happened. In tossing my hair, Id exposed my neck--andthe bite. I tried not to blush again, knowing I had nothing to feel embarrassed about. I pushed thehair back."Thats none of your business," I hissed, hoping the other guardians hadnt seen."Exactly." He sounded triumphant. "Because you need to live your own life, far away from me.""Oh, for Gods sake," I exclaimed. "Will you stop with the--"My eyes lifted from his face because an army suddenly descended upon us.Okay, it wasnt exactly an army, but it might as well have been. One minute it was just Dimitri,me, and his security, and then suddenly--the room was swarming with guardians. And not justany guardians. They wore the black-and-white outfits guardians often did for formal occasions,but a small red button on their collars marked them as guardians specifically attached to thequeens guard. There had to be at least twenty of them.They were lethal and deadly, the best of the best. Throughout history, assassins who had attackedmonarchs had found themselves quickly taken down by the royal guard. They were walkingdeath--and they were all gathering around us. Dimitri and I both shot up, unsure what washappening but certain the threat here was directed at us. His table and its chairs were between us,but we still immediately fell into the standard fighting stance when surrounded by enemies: Goback-to-back.Dimitris security wore ordinary clothing and seemed a bit astonished to see their brethren, butwith guardian efficiency, the escort promptly joined the advancing queens guard. There were nomore smiles or jokes. I wanted to throw myself in front of Dimitri, but in this situation, it waskind of difficult.
  • "You need to come with us right now," one of the queens guards said. "If you resist, well takeyou by force.""Leave him alone!" I yelled, looking from face to face. That angry darkness exploded within me.How could they still not believe? Why were they still coming after him? "He hasnt doneanything! Why cant you guys accept that hes really a dhampir now?"The man whod spoken arched an eyebrow. "I wasnt talking to him.""Youre... youre here for me?" I asked. I tried to think of any new spectacles I might have causedrecently. I considered the crazy idea that the queen had found out Id spent the night with Adrianand was pissed off about it. That was hardly enough to send the palace guard for me, though... orwas it? Had I really gone too far with my antics?"What for?" demanded Dimitri. That tall, wonderful body of his--the one that could be so sensualsometimes--was filled with tension and menace now.The man kept his gaze on me, ignoring Dimitri. "Dont make me repeat myself: Come with usquietly, or we will make you." The glimmer of handcuffs showed in his hands.My eyes went wide. "Thats crazy! Im not going anywhere until you tell me how the hell this--"That was the point at which they apparently decided I wasnt coming quietly. Two of the royalguardians lunged for me, and even though we technically worked for the same side, my instinctskicked in. I didnt understand anything here except that I would not be dragged away like somekind of master criminal. I shoved the chair Id been sitting in earlier at one of the guardians andaimed a punch at the other. It was a sloppy throw, made worse because he was taller than me.That height difference allowed me to dodge his next grab, and when I kicked hard at his legs, asmall grunt told me Id hit home.
  • I heard a few scattered screams. The people working at the cafe ducked behind their counter likethey expected automatic weapons to come out. The other patrons whod been eating breakfasthurriedly sprang from their tables, heedlessly knocking over food and dishes. They ran for theexits--exits that were blocked by still more guardians. This brought more screams, even thoughthe exits were being cut off because of me.Meanwhile, other guardians were joining the fray. Although I got a couple of good punches in, Iknew the numbers were too overwhelming. One guardian caught hold of my arm and begantrying to put the cuffs on me. He stopped when another set of hands grabbed me from the otherside and jerked me away.Dimitri."Dont touch her," he growled.There was a note in his voice that would have scared me if it had been directed toward me. Heshoved me behind him, putting his body protectively in front of mine with my back to the table.Guardians came at us from all directions, and Dimitri began dispatching them with the samedeadly grace that had once made people call him a god. He didnt kill any of the ones he fought,but he made sure they were out of action. If anyone thought his ordeals as a Strigoi or beinglocked up had diminished his fighting ability, they were terribly mistaken. Dimitri was a force ofnature, managing to take on both impossible odds and stop me each time I tried to join the fight.The queens guards might have been the best of the best, but Dimitri... well, my former lover andinstructor was in a category all his own. His fighting skills were beyond anyone elses, and hewas using them all in defense of me."Stay back," he ordered me. "They arent laying a hand on you."At first, I was overwhelmed by his protectiveness--even though I hated not being part of a fight.Watching him fight again was also entrancing. He made it look beautiful and lethal at the same
  • time. He was a one-man army, the kind of warrior that protected his loved ones and broughtterror to his enemies--And thats when a horrible revelation hit me."Stop!" I suddenly yelled. "Ill come! Ill come with you!"No one heard me at first. They were too involved with the fight. Guardians kept trying to sneakbehind Dimitri, but he seemed to sense them and would shove chairs or anything else he couldget a hold of at them--while still managing to kick and punch those coming at us head-on. Whoknew? Maybe he really could have taken on an army by himself.But I couldnt let him.I shook Dimitris arm. "Stop," I repeated. "Dont fight anymore.""Rose--""Stop!"I was pretty sure Id never screamed any word so loudly in my life. It rang through the room. Forall I knew, it rang through the entire Court.It didnt exactly make everyone come to a halt, but many of the guardians slowed down. A fewof the cowering cafe workers peered over the counter at us. Dimitri was still in motion, stillready to take everyone on, and I had to practically throw myself at him to get him to notice me.
  • "Stop." This time, my voice was a whisper. An uneasy silence had fallen over everyone. "Dontfight them anymore. Im going to go with them.""No. I wont let them take you.""You have to," I begged.He was breathing hard, every part of him braced and ready to attack. We locked gazes, and athousand messages seemed to flow between us as the old electricity crackled in the air. I justhoped he got the right message.One of the guardians tentatively stepped forward--having to go around the unconscious body ofhis colleague--and Dimitris tension snapped. He started to block the guardian and defend meagain, but I instead put myself between them, clasping Dimitris hand and still looking into hiseyes. His skin was warm and felt so, so right touching mine."Please. No more."I saw then that he finally understood what I was trying to say. People were still afraid of him. Noone knew what he was. Lissa had said him behaving calmly and normally would soothe fears.But this?Him taking on an army of guardians? That was not going to get him points for goodbehavior. For all I knew, it was already too late after this, but I had to attempt damage control. Icouldnt let them lock him up again--not because of me.As he looked at me, he seemed to send a message of his own: that he would still fight for me,that he would fight until he collapsed to keep them from taking me.I shook my head and gave his hand a parting squeeze. His fingers were exactly as I remembered,long and graceful, with calluses built up from years of training. I let go and turned to face theguy who had originally spoken. I assumed he was some sort of leader.
  • I held out my hands and slowly stepped forward. "Ill go quietly. But, please... dont lock himback up. He just thought... he just thought I was in trouble."The thing was, as the handcuffs were clamped onto my wrists, I was starting to think I was introuble too. As the guardians helped each other up, their leader took a deep breath and made theproclamation hed been trying to make since entering. I swallowed, waiting to hear Victorsname."Rose Hathaway, you are under arrest for high treason."Not quite what Id expected. Hoping my submission had earned me points, I asked, "What kindof high treason?""The murder of Her Royal Majesty, Queen Tatiana." Chapter Twenty-sixMAYBE IT WAS SOMEONES SICK sense of humor, but I ended up in Dimitris now-vacatedcell.I had come quietly after that guardian laid the charges before me. In fact, Id become comatosebecause too much of what hed said was impossible to process. I couldnt even really get to thepart about me. I couldnt feel outrage or indignation over the accusation because I was still stuckon the part about Tatiana being dead.Not just dead. Murdered.Murdered?
  • How had that happened? How had that happened around here? This Court was one of the mostsecure places in the world, and Tatiana in particular was always guarded--by the same group thathad descended on Dimitri and me so quickly. Unless shed left Court--and I was pretty sure shehadnt--no Strigoi could have killed her. With the constant threats we faced, murder amongdhampirs and Moroi was almost unheard of. Sure, it happened. It was inevitable in any society,but with the way ours was hunted, we rarely had time to turn on each other (shouting in Councilmeetings aside). That was part of why Victor had been so condemned. His crimes were about asbad as things got.Until now.Once I got past the impossible idea of Tatiana being dead, I was able to ask the real question:Why me? Why were they accusing me? I was no lawyer, but I was pretty sure calling someone asanctimonious bitch was not hard evidence in a trial.I tried getting more details from the guards outside my cell, but they remained hard-faced andsilent. After making my voice hoarse from shouting, I slumped onto the bed and went to Lissasmind, where I was certain Id get more information.Lissa was frantic, trying to get answers from anyone she could. Christian was still with her, andthey stood inside the foyer of one of the administrative buildings, which was filled with a flurryof activity. Dhampirs and Moroi alike ran everywhere, some frightened of this new governmentinstability and others hoping to take advantage of it. Lissa and Christian stood in the midst of itall, like leaves swept along in a storms fury.While Lissa was now technically an adult, she had still always been under the wing of someolder person at Court--usually Priscilla Voda, and occasionally even Tatiana. Neither of themwas available now, for obvious reasons. While many royals respected her, Lissa had no realsource to turn to.
  • Seeing her agitation, Christian clasped her hand. "Aunt Tasha will know whats going on," hesaid. "Shell turn up sooner or later. You know she wont let anything happen to Rose."Lissa knew there was a bit of uncertainty in that statement but didnt mention it. Tasha might notwant anything to happen to me, but she certainly wasnt all-powerful."Lissa!"Adrians voice caused both Lissa and Christian to turn around. Adrian had just entered, alongwith his mother. Adrian looked as though he had literally gone straight from my bedroom tohere. He wore yesterdays clothes, slightly rumpled, and his hair was styled with none of hisusual care. By comparison, Daniella looked polished and put together, the perfect picture of abusinesswoman who hadnt lost her femininity.At last! Here were people who might have answers. Lissa rushed over to them gratefully."Thank God," Lissa said. "No one will tell us whats happened... except that the queen is deadand Rose is locked up." Lissa looked up at Daniellas face pleadingly. "Tell me theres been somekind of mistake."Daniella patted Lissas shoulder and gave as comforting a look as she could manage, given thecircumstances. "Im afraid not. Tatiana was killed last night, and Rose is their main suspect.""But she would never have done that!" exclaimed Lissa.Christian joined her in righteous fury. "Her yelling at the Council that day isnt enough to convicther for murder." Ah, Christian and I had the same line of reasoning. It was almost scary. "Neitheris crashing the Death Watch."
  • "Youre right. Its not enough," agreed Daniella. "But it doesnt make her look good either. Andapparently, they have other evidence they say proves her guilt.""What kind of evidence?" Lissa demanded.Daniella turned apologetic. "I dont know. Thats still part of the investigation. Theyll have ahearing to present the evidence and question her whereabouts, possible motives... that kind ofthing." She glanced around at the people rushing by. "If they even get that far. This kind ofthing... it hasnt happened in ages. The Council gains absolute control until a new monarch iselected, but theres still going to be chaos. People are afraid. I wont be surprised if the Courtgoes under martial law."Christian turned to Lissa, hope on his face. "Did you see Rose last night? Was she with you?"Lissa frowned. "No. I think she was in her room. The last time I saw her was the day beforeyesterday."Daniella didnt look happy about that. "Thats not going to help. If she was alone, then she has noalibi.""She wasnt alone."Three sets of eyes turned in Adrians direction. It was the first time hed spoken since first callingto Lissa. Lissa hadnt focused on him too much yet, meaning I hadnt either. Shed only observedhis superficial appearance when he arrived, but now she could see the little details. Worry anddistress had left their marks, making him look older than he was. When she tuned in to his aura,she saw the usual gold of a spirit user, but it and its other colors were muddied and tinged withdarkness. There was a flickering there too, a warning of spirits instability taking hold. This hadall come about too quickly for him to react, but I suspected hed hit the cigarettes and liquor assoon as he had a free moment. It was how Adrian coped with this sort of thing.
  • "What are you saying?" Daniella asked sharply.Adrian shrugged. "She wasnt alone. I was with her all night."Lissa and Christian did a good job of maintaining neutral expressions, but Daniellas faceregistered the shock that any parent would have upon hearing about her childs sex life. Adriannoticed her reaction as well."Save it," he warned. "Your morals, your opinions... none of it matters right now." He gesturedtoward a group of panicked people running by, screaming about how Victor Dashkov must havesurely come to Court to kill them all. Adrian shook his head and turned back to his mother. "Iwas with Rose. That proves she didnt do it. Well deal with your motherly disapproval about mylove life later.""Thats not what worries me! If they do have hard evidence and you get mixed up in this, youcould be under suspicion too." The composure Daniella had entered with was beginning to crack."She was my aunt," cried Adrian incredulously. "Why on earth would Rose and I kill her?""Because she disapproved of you dating. And because Rose was upset over the age ruling." Thiscame from Christian. Lissa glared, but he merely shrugged. "What? Im just stating the obvious.Someone else would if I didnt. And we all heard the stories--people have been making up thingsthat are extreme even for Rose." A strong comment indeed."When?" asked Daniella, clutching Adrians sleeve. "When were you with Rose? When did youget there?""I dont know. I dont remember," he said.
  • She tightened her grip. "Adrian! Take this seriously. This is going to make a huge difference onhow things proceed. If you got there before Tatiana was killed, then you wont be tied to it. Ifyou were with Rose afterward--""Then she has an alibi," he interrupted. "And theres no problem.""I hope thats true," murmured Daniella. Her eyes didnt seem focused on my friends anymore.The wheels in her head were spinning, her thoughts jumping ahead as she tried to think how bestto protect her son. I had been an unfortunate case for her. He was, understandably, a red-alertemergency for her. "Were still going to have to get you a lawyer. Ill talk to Damon. I have tofind him before the hearing tonight. And Rufus will have to know about this too. Damn." Adrianarched an eyebrow at that. I had the impression Lady Ivashkov didnt swear very often. "We haveto find out what time you were there."Adrian still wore his distress around him like a cloak and looked as though he might fall over ifhe didnt get nicotine or alcohol soon. I hated to see him like that, particularly over me. Therewas strength within him, no question, but his nature--and the sketchy effects of spirit--madecoping with this hard. Yet, through his agitation, he managed to pull up a memory to help hisfrantic mother."There was someone in the building lobby when I came in... a janitor or something, I think. Noone at the front desk, though." Most buildings usually kept a staff member around foremergencies or concierge services.Daniellas face lit up. "Thats it. Thats what well need. Damon will find out the time you werethere so that we can get you free and clear of this.""And so he can defend me if things turn bad?""Of course," she answered swiftly.
  • "What about Rose?""What about her?"Adrian still looked ready to fall apart, but there was seriousness and focus in his green eyes. "Ifyou find out Aunt Tatiana was killed before I was there, and Rose is thrown to the wolves alone,will Damon be her lawyer?"His mother faltered. "Oh, well, darling... Damon doesnt really do that sort of thing....""He will if you ask him to," said Adrian sternly."Adrian," she said wearily, "you dont know what youre talking about. They say the evidenceagainst her is bad. If our familys shown supporting--""Its not like were supporting murder! You met Rose. You liked her. Can you look me in the eyeand say its okay for her to go in with whatever half-assed defense they dredge up for her? Canyou?"Daniella blanched, and I swear, she actually cringed away. I dont think she was used to suchfierce resoluteness from her devil-may-care son. And though his words were perfectly sane, therewas kind of a crazy desperation in his voice and attitude that was a little scary. Whether that wascaused by spirit or just his own emotion, I couldnt say."I... Ill speak to Damon," Daniella said at last. Shed had to swallow a few times before actuallygetting the words out.Adrian let out a deep breath and some of that fury went with it. "Thank you."
  • She scurried away, melting into the crowd and leaving Adrian alone with Christian and Lissa.The two of them looked only a little less stunned than Daniella had."Damon Tarus?" Lissa guessed. Adrian nodded."Whos that?" asked Christian."My moms cousin," said Adrian. "The family lawyer.A real shark. Kind of sleazy too, but he canpretty much get anyone out of anything.""Thats something, I suppose," mused Christian. "But is he good enough to fight this so-calledhard evidence?""I dont know. I really dont know." Adrian absentmindedly reached for his pocket, the usualcigarette spot, but he had none today. He sighed. "I dont know what their evidence is or howAunt Tatiana even died. All I heard was that they found her dead this morning."Lissa and Christian exchanged grimaces. Christian shrugged, and Lissa turned back to Adrian,taking on the role of messenger."A stake," said Lissa. "They found her in bed with a silver stake through her heart."Adrian said nothing, and his expression didnt really change. It occurred to Lissa that in all thistalk about innocence, evidence, and lawyers, everyone had kind of overlooked the fact thatTatiana had been Adrians great-aunt. He hadnt approved of some of her decisions and had madeplenty of jokes about her behind her back. But she was still his family, someone hed known hisentire life. He had to be feeling the pain of her death on top of everything else. Even I felt a littleconflicted. I hated her for what shed done to me, but Id never wanted her dead. And I couldnthelp but remember that shed occasionally spoken to me like I was a real person. Maybe it had
  • been faked, but I was pretty sure shed been sincere the night shed stopped by the Ivashkovs.Shed been weary and thoughtful, mostly just concerned about bringing peace to her people.Lissa watched Adrian go, sympathy and sorrow flooding through her. Christian gently tapped herarm. "Come on," he said. "Weve found out what we needed to know. Were just in the wayhere."Feeling helpless, Lissa let him lead her outside, dodging more panicked crowds. The orange of alow sun gave every leaf and tree a golden, warm feel. There had been a lot of people out whenwe returned from the warehouse with Dimitri, but it was nothing compared to this. People werebuzzing with fear, hurrying to pass the news. Some were already in mourning, clad in black, withtears on their faces. I wondered how much of that was real. Even in the midst of tragedy andcrime, royals would be scrambling for power.And each time she heard my name, Lissa would grow more and more angry. It was the bad angertoo, the kind that felt like black smoke in our bond and often made her lash out. It was spiritscurse."I cant believe this!" she exclaimed to Christian. I noticed, even if she didnt, that he washurriedly taking her somewhere where there werent people. "How could anyone think that aboutRose? Its a set up. It has to be.""I know, I know," he said. He knew spirits danger signs too and was trying to calm her down.Theyd reached a small, grassy area in the shade of a large hazelnut tree and settled onto theground. "We know she didnt do it. Thats all there is to it. Well prove it. She cant be punishedfor something she didnt do.""You dont know this group," grumbled Lissa. "If someones out to get her, they can make allsorts of things possible." With only the faintest awareness, I drew a little of that darkness fromher into me, trying to calm her down. Unfortunately, it just made me angrier.
  • Christian laughed. "You forget. I grew up around this group. I went to school with this groupskids. I know them--but were not panicking until we know more, okay?"Lissa exhaled, feeling much better. I was going to take too much darkness if I wasnt careful. Shegave Christian a small, tentative smile."I dont remember you being this reasonable before.""Its because everyone has different definitions of reasonable. Mines just misunderstood, thatsall." His voice was lofty."I think you must be misunderstood a lot," she laughed.His eyes held hers, and the smile on his face transformed into something warmer and softer."Well, I hope this isnt misunderstood. Otherwise, I might get punched."Leaning over, he brought his lips to hers. Lissa responded with no hesitation or thoughtwhatsoever, losing herself in the sweetness of the kiss. Unfortunately, I was swept along with it.When they pulled away, Lissa felt her heart rate increase and her cheeks flush."What exactly was that the definition of?" she asked, reliving how his mouth had felt."It means Im sorry," he said.She looked away and nervously plucked at some of the grass. Finally, with a sigh, she lookedback up. "Christian... was there ever... was there ever anything between you and Jill? Or Mia?"He stared in surprise. "What? How could you think that?"
  • "You spent so much time with them.""There is only one person I have ever wanted," he said. The steadiness of his gaze, of thosecrystal blue eyes, left no question as to who that person was. "No one else has ever come close.In spite of everything, even with Avery--""Christian, Im so sorry for that--""You dont have to--""I do--""Damn it," he said. "Will you let me finish a sent--""No," Lissa interrupted. And she leaned over and kissed him, a hard and powerful kiss thatburned through her body, one that told her there was no one else in the world for her either.Well. Apparently Tasha had been right: I was the only one who could bring them back together. Ijust somehow hadnt expected my arrest to play a role.I pulled away from her head to give them some privacy and save myself from watching themmake out. I didnt begrudge them their moment. There was nothing either could do for me rightnow, and they deserved their reunion. Their only course of action was to wait for moreinformation, and really, their method of passing time was a lot healthier than whatever Adrianwas probably doing.
  • I lay down on the bed and stared up at the ceiling. There was nothing but plain metal and neutralcolors around me. It drove me crazy. I had nothing to watch, nothing to read. I felt like an animaltrapped in a cage. The room seemed to grow smaller and smaller. All I could do was replay whatId learned via Lissa, analyzing every word of what had been said. I had questions abouteverything, of course, but the one thing that stuck with me was Daniella mentioning a hearing. Ineeded to know more about that.I got my answer--hours later.Id fallen into sort of a numb haze by then and almost didnt recognize Mikhail standing in frontof my cell door. I leapt from my bed to the bars and saw that he was unlocking the door. Hopesurged through me."Whats going on?" I asked. "Are they letting me go?""Im afraid not," he said. His point was proven when, after opening the door, he promptly put myhands in cuffs. I didnt fight it. "Im here to take you to your hearing."Stepping into the hall, I saw other guardians gathered. My own security detail.A mirror ofDimitris.Lovely. Mikhail and I walked together, and mercifully, he spoke along the way insteadof maintaining that awful silence that seemed to be common treatment for prisoners."Whats the hearing exactly? A trial?""No, no. Too soon for a trial. A hearing decides whether youre going to trial.""That sounds kind of like a waste of time," I pointed out. We emerged from the guardiansbuilding, and that fresh, damp air was the sweetest thing Id ever tasted.
  • "Its a bigger waste of time if you go to a full-fledged trial, and they realize there was no case tostand on. At the hearing, theyll lay out all the evidence they have, and a judge--or, well,someone acting as a judge--will decide if you should have a trial. The trial makes it official.Thats where they pass the verdict and dole out the punishment.""Whyd they take so long for the hearing? Whyd they make me wait in that cell all day?"He laughed, but not because he thought it was funny. "This is fast, Rose. Very fast. It can takedays or weeks to get a hearing, and if you do go to trial, youll stay locked up until then."I swallowed. "Will they move fast on that too?""I dont know. No monarchs been murdered in almost a hundred years. People are running wild,and the Council wants to establish order. Theyre already making huge plans for the queensfuneral--a giant spectacle thatll distract everyone. Your hearing is also an attempt to establishorder.""What? How?""The sooner they convict the murderer, the safer everyone will feel. They think this case againstyou is so solid, they want to rush it through. They want you to be guilty. They want to bury herknowing her killer is moving toward justice, so that everyone can sleep easy when the new kingor queen is elected.""But I didnt--" I let my denial go. There was no point.Ahead of us, the building that housed the courtroom loomed. It had seemed forbidding the firsttime Id been here for Victors trial, but that had been owing to fear of the memories he sparkedin me. Now... now it was my own future on the line. And apparently not just my own future--the
  • Moroi world was watching and waiting, hoping I was a villain who could be safely put awayforever. Swallowing, I gave Mikhail a nervous look."Do you think... do you think theyll send me to trial?"He didnt answer. One of the guards held the door open for us."Mikhail?" I urged. "Will they really put me on trial for murder?""Yes," he said sympathetically. "Im pretty sure they will." Chapter Twenty-sevenWALKING INTO THE COURTROOM was one of the most surreal experiences of my life--andnot just because I was the one being accused here. It just kept reminding me of Victors trial, andthe idea that I was now in his place was almost too weird to comprehend.Entering a room with a troop of guardians makes people stare--and believe me, there were a lotof people packed in there--so naturally, I didnt skulk or look ashamed. I walked with confidence,my head held high. Again, I had that eerie flashback to Victor. He too had walked in defiantly,and Id been appalled that someone who had committed his crimes could behave that way. Werethese people thinking the same thing about me?On the dais at the front of the room sat a woman I didnt recognize. Among the Moroi, a judgewas usually a lawyer who had been appointed to the position for the purposes of the hearing orwhatever. The trial itself--at least a big one like Victors--had been presided over by the queen.She had been the one to ultimately decide the final verdict. Here, the Council members would bethe ones to decide if I even reached that stage. The trial makes it official. Thats where they passthe verdict and dole out the punishment.
  • My escort took me to the front seating of the room, past the bar that separated the key playersfrom the audience, and motioned me toward a spot next to a middle-aged Moroi in a very formaland very designer black suit. The suit screamed, Im sorry the queen is dead, and Im going tolook fashionable while showing my grief. His hair was a pale blond, lightly laced with the firstsigns of silver. Somehow, he made it look good. I presumed this was Damon Tarus, my lawyer,but he didnt say a word to me.Mikhail sat beside me as well, and I was glad theyd chosen him to be the one who literally didntleave my side. Glancing back, I saw Daniella and Nathan Ivashkov sitting with other high-ranking royals and their families. Adrian had chosen not to join them. He sat farther back, withLissa, Christian, and Eddie. All of their faces were filled with worry.The judge--an elderly, gray-haired Moroi who looked like she could still kick ass--called theroom to attention, and I twisted around to face forward again. The Council was entering, and sheannounced them one by one. Two sets of benches had been arranged for them, two rows of sixwith a thirteenth in back raised. Of course, only eleven of the spots were filled, and I tried not toscowl. Lissa should have been sitting there.When the Council was settled, the judge turned to face the rest of us and spoke in a voice thatrang through the room. "This hearing is now in order, in which we will determine whether thereis enough evidence to--"A commotion at the door cut her off, and the audience craned their necks to see what was goingon."Whats this disturbance about?" the judge demanded.One of the guardians had the door partially open and was leaning out, apparently speaking towhoever was in the hall. He ducked back into the room. "The accuseds lawyer is here, YourHonor."
  • The judge glanced at Damon and me and then delivered a frown to the guardian. "She alreadyhas a lawyer."The guardian shrugged and appeared comically helpless. If there had been a Strigoi out there, hewould have known what to do. This bizarre interruption of protocol was beyond his skill set. Thejudge sighed."Fine. Send whoever it is up here and lets get this settled."Abe walked in."Oh dear lord," I said out loud.I didnt have to scold myself for speaking out of turn because a hum of conversation immediatelyfilled the room. My guess was that half were in awe because they knew Abe and his reputation.The other half were probably just stunned by his appearance.He wore a gray cashmere suit, considerably lighter than Damons grim black. Underneath it wasa dress shirt that was so bright a white, it seemed to glow--particularly next to the brilliantcrimson silk tie he wore. Other spots of red were scattered about his outfit--a handkerchief in thepocket, ruby cuff links. Naturally, it was all as perfectly tailored and expensive as Damonsoutfit. But Abe didnt look like he was in mourning. He didnt even look like he was coming to atrial. It was more like hed been interrupted on his way to a party. And of course, he sported hisusual gold hoop earrings and trimmed black beard.The judge silenced the room with a hand motion as he strutted up to her."Ibrahim Mazur," she said, with a shake of her head. There were equal parts amazement anddisapproval in her voice. "This is... unexpected."
  • Abe swept her a gallant bow. "Its lovely to see you again, Paula. You havent aged a day.""We arent at a country club, Mr. Mazur," she informed him. "And while here, you will addressme by my proper title.""Ah. Right." He winked. "My apologies, Your Honor." Turning, he glanced around until his eyesrested on me. "There she is. Sorry to have delayed this. Lets get started."Damon stood up. "What is this? Who are you? Im her lawyer."Abe shook his head. "There must have been some mistake. It took me a while to get a flight here,so I can see why you would have appointed a community lawyer to fill in.""Community lawyer!" Damons face grew red with indignation. "Im one of the most renownedlawyers among American Moroi.""Renowned, community." Abe shrugged and leaned back on his heals. "I dont judge. No punintended.""Mr. Mazur," interrupted the judge, "are you a lawyer?""Im a lot of things, Paula--Your Honor. Besides, does it matter? She only needs someone tospeak for her.""And she has someone," exclaimed Damon. "Me."
  • "Not anymore," said Abe, his demeanor still very pleasant. He had never stopped smiling, but Ithought I saw that dangerous glint in his eyes that frightened so many of his enemies. He was thepicture of calm, while Damon looked like he was ready to have a seizure."Your Honor--""Enough!" she said in that resounding voice of hers. "Let the girl choose." She fixed her browneyes on me. "Who do you want to speak for you?""I..." My mouth dropped open at how abruptly the attention shifted to me. Id been watching thedrama between the two men like a tennis match, and now the ball had hit me in the head."Rose."Startled, I turned slightly. Daniella Ivashkov had crept over in the row behind me. "Rose," shewhispered again, "you have no idea who that Mazur man is." Oh, didnt I? "You want nothing todo with him. Damons the best. Hes not easy to get."She moved back to her seat, and I looked between my two potential lawyers faces. I understoodDaniellas meaning. Adrian had talked her into getting Damon for me, and then she had talkedDamon into actually doing it. Rejecting him would be an insult to her, and considering she wasone of the few royal Moroi whod been nice to me about Adrian, I certainly didnt want to earnher dislike. Besides, if this was some setup by royals, having one of them on my side wasprobably my best chance at getting off.And yet... there was Abe, looking at me with that clever smile of his. He was certainly very goodat getting his way, but a lot of that was by force of his presence and reputation. If there reallywas some absurd evidence against me, Abes attitude wouldnt be enough to make it go away. Ofcourse, he was sly, too. The serpent. He could make the impossible happen; hed certainly pulleda lot of strings for me.
  • That did not, however, change the fact that he wasnt a lawyer.On the other hand, he was my father.He was my father, and although we still barely knew each other, hed gone to great lengths to gethere and saunter in with his gray suit to defend me. Was it fatherly love gone bad? Was he reallyall that good a lawyer? And at the end of the day, was it true that blood ran thicker than water? Ididnt know. I actually didnt like that saying. Maybe it worked for humans, but it made no sensewith vampires.Anyway, Abe was staring at me intently with dark brown eyes nearly identical to mine. Trustme, he seemed to say. But could I? Could I trust my family? I would have trusted my mother ifshe were here--and I knew she trusted Abe.I sighed and gestured toward him. "Ill take him." In an undertone, I added, "Dont let me down,Zmey."Abes smile grew broader as shocked exclamations filled the audience, and Damon protested inoutrage. Daniella might have had to persuade him to take me on in the beginning, but now thiscase had become a matter of pride for him. His reputation had just been sullied by me passinghim up.But Id made my choice, and the exasperated judge would hear no more arguments about it. Sheshooed Damon away, and Abe slid into his seat. The judge began with the standard openingspeech, explaining why we were here, etc., etc. As she spoke, I leaned toward Abe."What have you gotten me into?" I hissed to him."Me? What have you gotten yourself into? Couldnt I have just picked you up at the policestation for underage drinking, like most fathers?"
  • I was beginning to understand why people got irritated when I made jokes in dangeroussituations."My fucking futures on the line! Theyre going to send me to trial and convict me!"Every trace of humor or cheer vanished from his face. His expression grew hard, deadly serious.A chill ran down my spine."That," he said in a low, flat voice, "is something I swear to you is never, ever going to happen."The judge turned her attention back to us and the prosecuting lawyer, a woman called Iris Kane.Not a royal name, but she still looked pretty hard-core. Maybe that was just a lawyer thing.Before the evidence against me was laid out, the queens murder was also described in all itsgrisly detail. Howd shed been found this morning in bed, a silver stake through her heart and aprofound look of horror and shock on her face. Blood had been everywhere: on her nightgown,the sheets, her skin... The pictures were shown to everyone in the room, triggering a variety ofreactions. Gasps of surprise.More fear and panic. And some... some people wept. Some of thosetears were undoubtedly because of the whole terrible situation, but I think many cried becausetheyd loved or liked Tatiana. Shed been cold and stiff at times, but for the most part, her reignhad been a peaceful and just one.After the pictures, they called me up. The hearing didnt run the way a normal trial did. Therewas no formal switching back of lawyers as they questioned witnesses. They each just sort ofstood there and took turns asking questions while the judge kept order."Miss Hathaway," began Iris, dropping my title. "What time did you return to your room lastnight?"
  • "I dont know the exact time...." I focused on her and Abe, not the sea of faces out there."Somewhere around 5 a.m., I think. Maybe 6.""Was anyone with you?""No, well--yes. Later." Oh, God. Here it comes. "Um, Adrian Ivashkov visited me.""What time did he arrive?" asked Abe."Im not sure of that either. A few hours after I got back, I guess."Abe turned his charming smile on Iris, who was rustling through some papers. "The queensmurder has been pretty accurately narrowed down to between seven and eight. Rose wasntalone--of course, we would need Mr. Ivashkov to testify to that effect."My eyes flicked briefly to the audience. Daniella looked pale. This was her nightmare: Adriangetting involved. Glancing farther over, I saw that Adrian himself seemed eerily calm. I reallyhoped he wasnt drunk.Iris held up a sheet of paper triumphantly. "We have a signed statement from a janitor who saysMr. Ivashkov arrived at the defendants building at approximately nine twenty.""Thats pretty specific," said Abe. He sounded amused, like shed said something cute. "Do youhave any desk staff to confirm that?""No," Iris said icily. "But this is enough. The janitor remembers because he was about to take hisbreak. Miss Hathaway was alone when the murder took place. She has no alibi."
  • "Well," said Abe, "at least according to some questionable facts."But no more was said about the time. The evidence was admitted into the official records, and Itook a deep breath. I hadnt liked that line of questioning, but it had been expected, based on theearlier conversations Id heard via Lissa. The no-alibi thing wasnt good, but I kind of sharedAbes vibe. What they had so far still didnt seem strong enough to send me to trial. Plus, theyhadnt asked anything else about Adrian, which left him out of this."Next exhibit," said Iris. There was smug triumph all over her face. She knew the time thing wassketchy, but whatever was coming up, she thought it was gold.But actually, it was silver. A silver stake.So help me, she had a silver stake in a clear plastic container. It gleamed in the incandescentlighting--except for its tip. That was dark. With blood."This is the stake used to kill the queen," declared Iris. "Miss Hathaways stake."Abe actually laughed. "Oh, come on. Guardians are issued stakes all the time. They have anenormous, identical supply."Iris ignored him and looked at me. "Where is your stake right now?"I frowned. "In my room."She turned and glanced out over the crowd. "Guardian Stone?"A tall dhampir with a bushy black mustache rose from the crowd. "Yes?"
  • "You conducted the search of Miss Hathaways room and belongings, correct?"I gaped in outrage. "You searched my--"A sharp look from Abe silenced me."Correct," said the guardian."And did you find any silver stakes?" asked Iris."No."She turned back to us, still smug, but Abe seemed to find this new information even moreridiculous than the last batch. "That proves nothing. She could have lost the stake withoutrealizing it.""Lost it in the queens heart?""Miss Kane," warned the judge."My apologies, Your Honor," said Iris smoothly. She turned to me. "Miss Hathaway, is thereanything special about your stake? Anything that would distinguish it from others?""Y-yes."
  • "Can you describe that?"I swallowed. I had a bad feeling about this. "It has a pattern etched near the top. A kind ofgeometric design." Guardians had engraving done sometimes. Id found this stake in Siberia andkept it. Well, actually, Dimitri had sent it to me after it had come loose from his chest.Iris walked over to the Council and held out the container so that each of them could examine it.Returning to me, she gave me my turn. "Is this your pattern? Your stake?"I stared. It was indeed. My mouth opened, ready to say yes, but then I caught Abes eye. Clearly,he couldnt talk directly to me, but he sent a lot of messages in that gaze. The biggest one was tobe careful, be sly. What would a slippery person like Abe do?"It... it looks similar to the design on mine," I said at last. "But I cant say for sure if its the exactsame one." Abes smile told me Id answered correctly."Of course you cant," Iris said, as though shed expected no better. She handed off the containerto one of the court clerks. "But now that the Council has seen that the design matches herdescription and is almost like her stake, I would like to point out that testing has revealed"--sheheld up more papers, victory all over her face--"that her fingerprints are on it."There, it was. The big score.The "hard evidence.""Any other fingerprints?" asked the judge."No, Your Honor. Just hers."
  • "That means nothing," said Abe with a shrug. I had a feeling that if I stood and suddenlyconfessed to the murder, he would still claim it was dubious evidence. "Someone steals her stakeand wears gloves. Her fingerprints would be on it because its hers.""Thats getting kind of convoluted, dont you think?" asked Iris."The evidence is still full of holes," he protested. "Thats whats convoluted. How could she havegotten into the queens bedroom? How could she have gotten through the guards?""Well," mused Iris, "those would be questions best explored in trial, but considering MissHathaways extensive record of breaking into and out of places, as well as the countless otherdisciplinary marks she has, I dont doubt she could have found any number of ways to getinside.""You have no proof," said Abe. "No theory.""We dont need it," said Iris. "Not at this point. We have more than enough to go to trial, dontwe? I mean, we havent even gotten to the part where countless witnesses heard Miss Hathawaytell the queen shed regret establishing the recent guardian law. I can find the transcript if youlike--not to mention reports of other expressive commentary Miss Hathaway made in public."A memory came back to me, of standing outside with Daniella while I ranted--with otherswatching--about how the queen couldnt buy me off with an assignment. Not a good decision onmy part. Neither was busting in on the Death Watch or complaining about the queen being worthprotecting when Lissa had been captured. Id given Iris a lot of material."Oh yes," Iris continued. "We also have accounts of the queen declaring her extreme disapprovalof Miss Hathaways involvement with Adrian Ivashkov, particularly when the two ran off toelope." I opened my mouth at that, but Abe silenced me. "There are countless other records ofHer Majesty and Miss Hathaway sparring in public. Would you like me to find those papers too,or are we able to vote on a trial now?"
  • This was directed at the judge. I had no legal background, but the evidence was pretty damning. Iwould have said that there was definitely reason to consider me a murder suspect, except..."Your Honor?" I asked. I think shed been about to give her declaration. "Can I say something?"The judge thought about it, then shrugged. "I see no reason not to. Were collecting all theevidence there is."Oh, me freelancing was not in Abes plan at all. He strode to the stand, hoping to stop me withhis wise counsel, but he wasnt fast enough."Okay," I said, hoping I sounded reasonable and wasnt going to lose my temper. "Youve put upa lot of suspicious stuff here. I can see that." Abe looked pained. It was not an expression Id seenon him before. He didnt lose control of situations very often. "But thats the thing. Its toosuspicious. If I were going to murder someone, I wouldnt be that stupid. Do you think Id leavemy stake stuck in her chest? Do you think I wouldnt wear gloves? Come on. Thats insulting. IfIm as crafty as you claim my record says I am, then why would I do it this way? I mean,seriously? If I did it, itd be a lot better. Youd never even peg me as a suspect. This is all reallykind of an insult to my intelligence.""Rose--" began Abe, a dangerous note in his tone. I kept going."All this evidence youve got is so painfully obvious. Hell, whoever set this up might as wellhave painted an arrow straight to me--and someone did set me up, but you guys are too stupid toeven consider that." The volume of my voice was rising, and I consciously brought it back tonormal levels. "You want an easy answer. A quick answer. And you especially want someonewith no connections, no powerful family to protect them..." I hesitated there, unsure how toclassify Abe. "Because thats how it always is. Thats how it was with that age law. No one wasable to stand up for the dhampirs either because this goddamned system wont allow it."
  • It occurred to me then that I had strayed pretty far off the subject--and was making myself lookmore guilty by slamming the age law. I reined myself back in."Um, anyway, Your Honor... what Im trying to say is that this evidence shouldnt be enough toaccuse me or send me to trial. I wouldnt plan a murder this badly.""Thank you, Miss Hathaway," said the judge. "That was very... informative. You may take yourseat now while the Council votes."Abe and I returned to our bench. "What in the world were you thinking?" he whispered."I was telling it like it is. I was defending myself.""I wouldnt go that far. Youre no lawyer."I gave him a sidelong look. "Neither are you, old man."The judge asked the Council to vote on whether they believed there was enough evidence tomake me a viable suspect and send me to trial. They did. Eleven hands went up. Just like that, itwas over.Through the bond, I felt Lissas alarm. As Abe and I rose to leave, I looked out in the audience,which was starting to disband and buzzing with talk over what would happen now. Her lightgreen eyes were wide, her face unusually pale. Beside her, Adrian too looked distressed, but ashe stared at me, I could see love and determination radiating. And in the back, behind both ofthem...Dimitri.
  • I hadnt even known he was here. His eyes were on me too, dark and endless. Only I couldntread what he was feeling. His face betrayed nothing, but there was something in his eyes...something intense and intimidating. The image of him ready to take down that group ofguardians flashed through my mind, and something told me that if I asked, he would do it again.He would fight his way to me through this courtroom and do everything in his power to rescueme from it.A brushing of my hand distracted me from him. Abe and I had started to exit, but the aisle aheadof us was packed with people, bringing us to a halt. The touch against my hand was a small pieceof paper shoved between my fingers. Glancing over, I saw Ambrose was sitting near the aisle,staring straight ahead. I wanted to ask what was going on, but some instinct kept me silent.Seeing as the line still wasnt moving, I hastily opened the paper, keeping it out of Abes sight.The paper was tiny, its elegant cursive almost impossible to read.Rose,If youre reading this, then something terrible has happened. You probably hate me, and I dontblame you. I can only ask that you trust that what I did with the age decree was better for yourpeople than what others had planned. There are some Moroi who want to force all dhampirs intoservice, whether they want it or not, by using compulsion. The age decree has slowed that factiondown.However, I write to you with a secret you must put right, and it is a secret you must share with asfew as possible. Vasilisa needs her spot on the Council, and it can be done. She is not the lastDragomir. Another lives, the illegitimate child of Eric Dragomir. I know nothing else, but if youcan find this son or daughter, you will give Vasilisa the power she deserves. No matter yourfaults and dangerous temperament, you are the only one I feel can take on this task. Waste notime in fulfilling it.--Tatiana Ivashkov
  • I stared at the piece of paper, its writing swirling before me, but its message burning into mymind. She is not the last Dragomir. Another lives.If that was true, if Lissa had a half-brother or half-sister... it would change everything. She wouldget a vote on the Council. She would no longer be alone. If it was true.If this was from Tatiana.Anyone could sign her name to a piece of paper. It didnt make it real. Still, I shivered, troubledat the thought of getting a letter from a dead woman. If I allowed myself to see the ghosts aroundus, would Tatiana be there, restless and vengeful? I couldnt bring myself to let down my wallsand look. Not yet. There had to be other answers. Ambrose had given me the note. I needed toask him... except we were moving down the aisle again. A guardian nudged me along."Whats that?" asked Abe, always alert and suspicious.I hastily folded the note back up. "Nothing."The look he gave me told me he didnt believe that at all. I wondered if I should tell him. It is asecret you must share with as few as possible. If he was one of the few, this wasnt the place. Itried to distract him from it and shake the dumbstruck look that must have been on my face. Thisnote was a big problem--but not quite as big as the one immediately facing me."You told me I wouldnt go to trial," I said to Abe. My earlier annoyance returned. "I took a bigchance with you!""It wasnt a big chance. Tarus couldnt have got you out of this either."Abes easy attitude about all this infuriated me further. "Are you saying you knew this hearingwas a lost cause from the beginning?" It was what Mikhail had said too. How nice to have suchfaith from everyone.
  • "This hearing wasnt important," Abe said evasively. "What happens next is.""And what is that exactly?"He gave me that dark, sly gaze again. "Nothing you need to worry about yet."One of the guardians put his hand on my arm, telling me I needed to move. I resisted his pull andleaned toward Abe."The hell I dont! This is my life were talking about," I exclaimed. I knew what would comenext. Imprisonment until the trial.And then more imprisonment if I was convicted. "This isserious! I dont want to go to trial! I dont want to spend the rest of my life in a place likeTarasov."The guard tugged harder, pushing us forward, and Abe fixed me with a piercing gaze that mademy blood run cold."You will not go to trial. You will not go to prison," he hissed, out of the guards hearing. "Iwont allow it. Do you understand?"I shook my head, confused over so much and not knowing what to do about any of it. "Even youhave your limits, old man."His smile returned. "Youd be surprised. Besides, they dont even send royal traitors to prison,Rose. Everyone knows that."I scoffed. "Are you insane? Of course they do. What else do you think they do with traitors? Setthem free and tell them not to do it again?"
  • "No," said Abe, just before he turned away. "They execute traitors."